Friday, April 29, 2011
Guest Author: Voss Foster
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to my dear friend and fellow author, Voss Foster, who has agreed to stop by and share some wisdom from the trenches.
Well, my dear Frances asked me to guest blog and she threw out a lovely suggestion for a topic to boot - what it's like to be a beginner in the world of professional writing. It seems like a pretty valid topic to cover, don't you think? You don't think so? Are you sure? That's what I thought. As I said, it seems like a pretty valid topic to cover, so I thought to myself as I was filling a bottle of lemonade - since bottles always seem to inspire me to write blog posts - “People love top five stuff.” It's a nice, compact way to get across a buttload of information (that's a technical measurement, by the way) and have people be able to just go “Tip number three…”
So, long story short (Too late, I know.), I have this nifty little list of things to tell people who were where I was not too long ago. Just to be extra mushy and pile lots of love on her, I owe a lot of where I am to Frances Pauli, Jaleta Clegg (http://jaletaclegg.blogspot.com), and Adriane Caelleigh (http://blackstoneandmoonskins.blogspot.com). Okay, now really without further ado (I hope), here's the list (By the way, that translates to “LOOK AT ME! I'M A TRANSITION!”)
1 - Write the Freaking Thing!
I know you'll get the same advice from any author out there. I've heard from a wide variety of people. Mercedes Lackey, Patricia Briggs - I think I even may have heard C.J. Cherryh say it at the last convention. If she didn't, I'm pretty damn sure she would have said it if the situation arose. If you're going to be a painter, you paint. If you're going to be a singer, you sing. If you're going to be an epidemiologist, you study outbreaks and emergent diseases…okay, that one didn't exactly fit the motif, but you can still figure this out. If painters paint and singers sing, what do you have to do to be a writer? Be crazy…well, yes, but I was looking for WRITE! You can't do anything but dream until you actually write a *bleep* *bleep* manuscript (That was a censor, if you didn't catch that.). It really is a lesson that everyone has to learn if they ever want to release anything to a publisher. If your only writing aspiration is to write for your friends and give stuff away online that's wonderful. Have fun with your writing. I'm really not being sarcastic. I did the same thing, much to the chagrin of my writing group, but then I got a wild hair up my hind end and decided I wanted a little bit more. I'd always wanted to try something a little more ambitious than writing steamy love scenes for my friends, so I started to really write.
2 - Edit the Freaking Thing!
Now, if you were like me, editing didn't exist before you decided to try and get in with the big boys and girls in the publishing world…okay, the larger than you boys and girls. I honestly never had a thought about it. I used to just sit down, bang something out in Word, make sure my spelling and grammar check wasn't totally having a seizure, and then off it went to make me no money. Can you tell I'm resentful about giving everything away for free now? That's not the point, though. The point is this: I was sitting, nothing to do but twiddle my thumbs, in my first period class one day and I happened to have a piece of my work in my bag. I pulled it out to read it and I found that, by reading it, I could find errors that the computer had missed. Now, I'd heard of this happening before, but I never actually tested the theory. I snatched a highlighter and a pen and stated to go through it like that. Then I noticed something else - I wasn't very visceral here, here, or here. I grabbed another highlighter and started to tear up that page. Now, it admittedly took me two hours to get through the first round of editing and revision on that little four page story, but that should just show you how hideous your first draft is. I'm not saying to hate your first draft of a work, but treat it like a person with a really fast-spreading case of leprosy. The bones (the basic lines of your story) remain pretty much the same, but you have to slice off that infected finger and give your story a prosthetic, stat. What I mean to say is that editing will save your story. If you leave that little leprous finger (Having Jim-Bob in three places during one paragraph, for example), it will just open the door to leaving other mistakes in your manuscript, and if you pick and choose which mistakes to edit, why edit in the first place? Now, I know I had a point…right! The bottom line is this: that little, annoying voice in your head that tells you that all of your writing is crap and you should throw yourself into a lake - he's mostly right, now. Don't throw yourself in a lake, though - unless it's to swim. Just accept that you have a steaming pile of crap wrapped around a tiny diamond and, with the pressure of editing and revising, you can turn that surrounding, carbon rich shell of crap into an even bigger diamond.
3 - You are your own Worst Enemy
It's true. Now that you have everything written and edited, you read through it and say, “It's bloody brilliant! I'll be a multi-quasi-septillionaire in no time!” You smile when you send off that little gem you just formed and wait, champagne at the ready, for that acceptance letter. You just know they'll take “The Adventures of Alex the Ankle-Licking Werewolf”. Who wouldn't? Your email pings and it's from Awesomesauce Press. You open the letter and it says, “Thank you for sending us your submission. Sadly, it's not for us. I think you need to sit on something sharp.” You are officially devastated (more on rejections later). You wonder how such a brilliant masterpiece could have been turned down. It must be a mistake. You call your writing guru, whoever that may be, and cry and whine and complain. They ask you one, simple question, “Who was your beta-reader?”
That blank look you have right there is the general answer for beginning authors. I lucked out and already knew what one was, but for most aspiring authors a beta-reader is some long-forgotten myth. In short, it's the other pair of eyes. Find some - they'll help, I promise - and tell them to read the story and see what they think. If you're lucky you can have people who actually write and/or read in that genre, but most anyone will do in most cases. If you can, make sure they don't know that it's yours. They might be too sympathetic if it's yours. I can't tell you how much my beta-readers do for me. Sure, I want to stab them in the face whenever I start editing - at least usually - but deep down I know it's for the best. A good beta-reader will point out any weirdness in your plot/characterization/style. Hell, I didn't even know about passive verbs until someone told me to fix them - then I had to learn. When push comes to shove, whether you hate them or love them, beta-readers are your biggest necessity. Manuscripts are like children - they're always cute to you, but not everyone overlooks the third nostril and missing eyebrow.
4 - The Big Moment
That could mean a lot of things depending on context, but I'm talking about submission. You've spent, likely, at least a week or two on your short story, between writing, editing, and beta-reading. You now hold your tiny, feeble baby in your hand (by baby I mean manuscript). It's crying and covered in a warm blanket. Now throw that little, sweet, innocent child into a hungry pack of wolves. Acid-spitting wolves. With lasers. A hungry pack of acid-spitting laser wolves. You need to submit it. Next to writing the freaking thing and editing the freaking thing, submitting the freaking thing is the most important step to getting it published. I mean, look at it, you need to submit it somewhere if it's going to get out to the public. Yes, it's a terrifying thing, most of the time. I mean, you're unsure of what to do in this industry. Do you even belong? What if the editor hates it? Do they have some kind of secret editor's club where they all decide who gets in and who gets the boot? As far as I know, that's not actually true, but everything else could actually happen. The editor might absolutely despise it and throw it into the furnace just so they can watch it burn. I'm not going to say that every editor for every publishing company is made of sugar and marshmallows. I'm also not going to say that they're all acid-spitting laser wolves. In actuality, most of the editors I know of are actually writers with a good eye for spelling, grammar, flow, continuity, and the like. They understand what you've had to put into this.
Now, I get that there's some serious anxiety making that first submission. Mine wasn't that long ago. The best way to do it is to find something that you've written (but never published) and track down a market with Duotrope's Digest (any search engine should be able to find it without issue.). They have a full listing of open submissions that are separated by bunches and bunches of different categories (genre, subgenre, category, length, et cetera). Then just grit your teeth and send in the file (make sure you look at their requirements to make sure everything is in order). A lot of publishers get back fairly quickly (within three months), so you won't be chomping at the bit all too long. I wish I could tell you to do something special to make it easier, but there isn't a magical trick to it. You have to bite the bullet and submit.
5 - It's Just Not for Us
When you write to send things off, you need to know that there are only two possibilities. They can say “yippee” and take your manuscript, or they can say “no” and deny your manuscript. Sure you can get on the shortlist, but all that means is “no, but if you change it here, here, and here we can probably take it”. Now, I understand exactly the feeling of my first rejection letter. It was on a Halloween horror story and, when I got the “no” back, even though I was halfway expecting it, I came close to just never submitting to that press again. Bottom line is rejection letters suck, especially the first one. After that it's not so bad, but that first rejection makes you question your entire skill with a pencil (or keyboard - whatever). Now, we're in luck in this day and age. It used to be that every potential manuscript had to be sent through snail mail. Now, some of them still do, but so many are online submissions. I know it doesn't seem important, but think of it like this. We're all pretty used to internet slams at this point, so we recover more quickly. People tell us to feck off and die on the internet on a pretty regular basis, depending on what sites you go to, so hearing “no” just seems far less hideous. The first rejection letter sucks, yes, but I think my recovery for it was something like 7-8 hours, then I was ready to resubmit the story to another place. Now, when you get that rejection, there are a few things I recommend:
Your writing buddies w/hugs and chocolate
…I think that's all you really need to get over that rejection. Really though, what rejection comes down to is a rite of passage. That's the best way to see it. My band director in high school gave me some of the greatest advice I've ever gotten: “If you act like you're having fun, you'll have fun.” That applies to rejection letters as well. You can either sit there and mope and bemoan your lack of writing skills, which is an admittedly healthy way to handle rejection, or you can take that rejection, buy a pretty frame, and throw it up next to your first release. They're both important enough to keep.
Now, I know how inconsequential all of this seems, I do. You'll think, if you're new, that I'm a blithering idiot. You already know how to write. You don't need to edit. You don't need a beta-reader. You sure as all hell won't get turned down. Let me ask you, though - if you know it all, why did you read this article? Is that a bit of an egotistical statement? Perhaps a touch, but it's also a very valid question.
Now, if I had to give out one more little bit of advice, right quick, here's what it would be: Someone wants to read your story. I know it might take twenty tries to get it out there, but there is someone that wants to see what the hell you wrote, no matter how many rejection letters you get for it. Stack them up and print your next manuscript on the backs of the papers. Obviously you don't want to submit it on that paper (if you submit through snail mail), but it's a way to turn that hideousness (assuming you don't want to throw them all in frames or wallpaper your bedroom with rejection letters) into a thing of beauty.
Merry ye meet and merry ye part,