San francisco mural
When I originally conceived this essay, it was meant to be something in the way of a How To thing, for one of my classes, an easy to follow step by step guide on how to market your work. By the time I came to write it, though, I realized that this particular bunch of students already had that covered. And, anyway, there are lots of pieces like that. (A quick crank through Submission Grinder might be enough to get some writers started. Writers Digest has a piece on the basics, too.)
So what this became, in fairly short order, was more of an acknowledgment of something many of us realize, forget, and then learn anew over the course of our careers:
- Learning to write well–learning your craft–is hard.
- Learning to sell your work is completely different–and also hard.
- Both are lifelong pursuits with changing goalposts.
It used to be, in the days before the Internet, that the process of submitting a manuscript had an almost ritualistic air to it.
You had to produce a typed copy, of course… and if you go back far enough, that involved actually typing it on an old school typewriter. You needed a back-up, and before copy shops and the days of a laser printer in every home, that meant carbon copies. This was a pain in the ass the likes of which I cannot even describe.
Unless you had the random good fortune to live in the same city as and be buddies with your chosen editor, a mythical unicorn-like creature straight out of the pages of John Irving, who accepted prose directly from your hands and impressed it, deitybeams emanating all the while, right into the centerspread of The New Yorker, each submission had to go into snailmail, with a cover letter and something called an SASE–which means self-addressed stamp envelope. This was an envelope with enough U.S. postage on it (no matter where your country of origin was, and don’t get me started on International Reply Coupons) to pay to return your original. This in turn ensured that you didn’t have to type it again if a rejection happened to come.
If the story got picked up, the SASE was used for the contract.
There was no real way of knowing if Writers Digest was still on track when it said that a market like Tomorrow Speculative Fiction would take six months to get back to you. There was a sense of throwing your fiction out into the void to see if it might somehow, miraculously catch a yes. It was night fishing. It was slow. The most important part of many a writer’s day was watching for the mail carrier.
I came along somewhere midway between carbon copies and dot matrix printers, and so my point in telling you this is not anything along the lines of Oh, you kids have it so much better than the oldsters who founded this genre! It’s not even Hey, things are so much better now! They are, of course, at least in terms of logistics. It is much easier to get up-to-date market information, to canvas other writers about what any given editor may want, and to go to the aforementioned Grinder to find out things like the average response time for a given market.
In the end, though, it still comes down to this: your story, working its way into the unknown, trying to catch the attention of a single reader. That reader might be an overtaxed and jaded slush reader for a magazine that gets eighty manuscripts a day. It might be the agent who asked for your manuscript in person at a writing conference. The physical artifact might still exist: you may yet mail out printed Courier text on crisp white sheets of 20 pound bond. It might as easily end up being custom formatted, by the recipient, to suit whatever e-reader they keep by the bedside table at home.
There’s a metaphorical line, a reel and a piece of bait. And what hasn’t changed, between then and now, is that you are taking an immense emotional risk.
Some of us are years, even decades, from the first time we threw a manuscript out there. Some of us have reached a point where we don’t even find the process of casting our work out there particularly difficult anymore. Others will struggle every single time.
I have seen people get used enough to selling that the submission process becomes something they’re comparatively blasé about… blasé, that is, until that rejection for something they really wanted to sell hits their Inbox.
Then we remember. Oh, yeah! We’re putting ourselves out there. We’re taking risks.
Now, a thing about sticking your neck out is, of course, that you can lose. Lose badly, sometimes. The time spent writing a work of fiction is not a trivial investment. And I have seen people brought very low in the arts. There are discouragements and heartbreaks and dark nights of the soul. But the risk isn’t like casino gambling. The house is not against you. I sincerely believe there are more people hoping you will win than there are those stacking the deck against you.
So as you prepare your next submission, be it your first or your fiftieth, take time to recognize that you are doing something that is difficult, and brave, and worth applauding in its own right. Remember that there may have been a time in your life when you could not have imagined submitting your writing to a workshop, let alone a professional market. Remember that there may have been a time when you were unable to consider calling yourself a writer at all.
You are allowed to have this dream. It’s yours, and you own a little more of it every time you put words to paper, every time you research something you may later put in a story, every time you read a book or watch a movie with a critical eye even as you feed that impulse to entertain yourself. You are allowed to claw for time to make your art, and to send the finished product to people who may pay you the enormous compliment of giving you money and seeking an audience for it. Start thinking of yourself as part of the club.
And for those of you who aren’t in a space where you currently need reassurance, I say this: the day may come when you cycle back around to this emotional place I’m describing. To the precipice. There may be a future you who questions whether the risk is too great, who lacks the beautiful certainty of your now. So think of this little peptalk as a time traveler: pack it into your mental backpack, and carry it on to the future.
It’s often observed that the people who succeeding in fiction writing are the ones who just keep knocking on doors. That doesn’t mean their work is bad. Quite the opposite. It just means that they have, among other things, refused to give up on the idea of The Sale.
Practically ever essay I’ve seen on writing success talks about persistence. You’ve all seen those essays, I suspect, and the reason the point bears endless, tiresome repeating is specifically because risk takes energy. Risk gets tiring. Risk can even, when it’s day in, day out, and a lot of No mixed in with the Yes, become something of a grind.
So when writers turn out charming blog entries about how you just have to keep at it, remember that lying under the grassy green promise of those peppy essays are the ghosts of dreams, the memory of talented souls who gave up, the crawling worms that feed on the sleepless nights when we ourselves lay awake wondering if we might just be better off getting a real estate license. We’re telling you you have to keep at it or go under. And, simultaneously, we’re telling ourselves.
And this brings me to each other. In this, as in so many other things, the only people who truly get it are the people going through the same thing.
Writers workshop to receive crucial feedback for their fiction, but the other function of classes like my various workshops, and Clarion, and Odyssey, is to connect you with your fellow travelers. This is, again, an area where the Internet has been a game changer. It is possible now to have a writer’s group that will never meet in person. You can find a kindred spirit, anywhere in the world, and form a rich and lasting creative bond.
Keep making the work. Keep throwing it out there. Fish with a friend whenever you can. These are the things that are within your control, and they make it so much easier to survive those moments when the business side of this wacky, rewarding and idiosyncratic art–of giving voice to your dreams, in other words–starts to feel like you’re shouting into an abyss.
The slice of my life that is all about helping new authors find and hone their voices has been on fire lately, and I have been burning to tell you about all the nifty upcoming developments. Over at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, registration is open for “Creating Universes, Building Worlds,” my workshop course in short speculative fiction. This class makes a nice trial run for something like Odyssey, Clarion or Clarion West: you can write in any of the speculative fiction subgenres, and the workshop is run like one of the aforementioned programs (or as close to it as one can get with an online class.) You get to stay home, write one complete work of fiction, workshop it with the group, and make plans for revision and marketing.
Want more? You also get to read and discuss awesome stories by Kij Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, Harry Turtledove, Tanith Lee and so many other fantastic writers!
But why is that exciting? You may well ask… I’ve been teaching this class for years. But for those of you who’ve taken CUBW and its follow-up, Writing the Fantastic, it does look like there will be a new and more advanced option for you at UCLA come Spring 2016. So that’s one very exciting thing.
The other wildly delightful development is that come January I will be teaching a realtime, face to face, honest-to-deity speculative fiction workshop at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ontario. Are there (or do you know) any U of T students who might be interested in that? If so, write me and I will give you the scoop as it develops.
One of my online students asked today how novels get workshopped in the real world. It’s a question with several dimensions. It references novels as opposed to short stories, and also raises the issue of face to face workshops versus the online kind. The real heart of this question, it seems to me, is “How does a group workshop a bunch of works that are probably all over 75K words long?”
I’ll home in on that, but first let’s glance past the side issues:
ONLINE VERSUS FACE TO FACE: The logistics of finding like-minded novelists to work with make it probable that any novel workshop you do find will have an online component. Unless you live in a big city and know a fair number of other writers,the pool of people available to you will be so much bigger if you expand it to include, you know, the whole Internet.
Face to face workshops have an immediacy that e-mail can’t match, but this is perhaps beginning to be a moot point in the age of Google Hangouts and similar conferencing software. If you want to talk through a manuscript and your computer’s not ancient, you can meet in realtime. It’s really about what you want.
Both types of feedback–written and face to face–can be crucial to a project’s development as long as the critiques are good and the writer is ready to listen. Your mileage may vary, but I believe the magic is in the people, not the delivery system.
SHORT FICTION VERSUS NOVELS: Short fiction, in workshop terms, has an awesome advantage over novels. It’s short! My UCLA classes run ten weeks and can have as many as fifteen students. Even if each student came in with a slender tome, (say 50K words or 200 pages) a whole-novel workshop would be looking at reading 3000 pages of manuscript. That’s just reading, and doesn’t consider the feedback! I wrote 8,700 words of critique last week on nine short submissions, and that excludes follow-up discussion.
A usual strategy is to submit a manageable section of a novel instead. Everyone gets a more or less equal chance to show off part of their novel. This highlights the other advantage of a short fiction workshop–writers can submitting whole pieces. We can evaluate them from start to stop; all their cards are revealed. If someone says “I don’t like the decision Proto makes here,” you don’t find yourself crying in your beer because it all makes sense in the next chapter.
LOGISTICS OF WORKSHOPPING NOVELS
So, how do you workshop novels? There are probably a billion strategies, and I’m open to hearing them all, but here are the three main tactics:
–Workshopping an already finished novel in its entirety.
–Workshopping a finished novel in parts.
–Workshopping a WIP (work in progress) in parts.
WHOLE FINISHED BOOKS: If you have a book done, you can look for readers who have time and the inclination to read it all. This generally isn’t going to be a 15-person workshop, but rather a handful of trusted readers to whom you’re going to owe the same favor. And, unless you set a reading deadline and then convene a meeting (at your house, a convivial restaurant, or online) the feedback is likely to come in a one-on-one format, via e-mail. This is just as it would come from an agent or editor, which may have some useful features… but it doesn’t allow the ferment that comes from discussion, give and take, agree and disagree.
The obvious advantage here is that the work is critiqued as a piece. You get feedback on the whole thing. Your set-up, character arcs, and whether you stuck the ending can all be evaluated, because–as with a short story–the readers have everything they need.
The possible downside is that you’re going to get one take from each reader… you’re hardly going to ask them to take a second run at the rewrite in six months’ time!
Getting a finished novel read after it’s drafted keeps the critique process from sabotaging your momentum, though, or tempting you to stray from the path you’ve set for the story. This is crucial for many writers. Then again, if you do conclude from the feedback on the early chapters that you’ve taken your characters in a bad direction, there’s that much more to rewrite if the other 450 pages have already been put to bed.
FINISHED BOOKS, IN PIECES: This may, for some, offer the best of both worlds. It assumes you have access to or can build a workshop with some kind of rotating roster, and you submit pieces of the completed draft of your book, in order, at regular intervals. You get feedback on Chapters 1-3, for example, and as you rewrite them you turn in Chapters 4-6. All the while, you’re reading and critiquing works by your peers.
The possible disadvantages here are that this sort of thing requires a certain amount of organizational discipline from the workshop, a group that sticks to its commitments and its schedule.It might also take longer than you’d like. People inevitably forget major chunks of chapters 1-3 by the time they reach 9-12. However, it may represent a lighter workload for a larger group–thus garnering more feedback– and be more generally do-able.
UNFINISHED BOOK AS YOU GO: This is the mode for most of the novel writing courses I teach at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and it has a lot going for it. Writers get an immediate sense of what people like about the book, and a chance to rethink the elements that aren’t working before those elements get embedded too deeply into the book’s structure. Everyone is drafting madly, so the emphasis can be on big picture stuff rather than the fine details of prose and polish. And if you get someone on board with a story element they weren’t buying in an earlier round of critique, you know you’ve addressed a problem. That can be a great feeling.
A chief drawback with this kind of critique process is that sometimes the drafting stage of a book is a delicate time, and too much feedback during this early exploration of a story can disrupt a writer’s momentum, causing them to go back and rewrite their beginning over and over, or to abandon the project entirely.
Novels are big investments of time and emotion, and as such they come with big risks. Figuring out how to get decent feedback for yourself and for a particular project, at any given time, can be a genuinely tricky business. This post is long because it’s a complex question with no single right answer.
The best advice I can give you, therefore, is to get to know other writers who are in the same stage of artistic development as yourself. When you meet someone in a class or at a con who really gets your work, bend over backwards to give them amazing feedback on theirs, and work to stay connected. As you build a network of writers you trust and admire, your resources for structuring a workshop you can use will increase.
I’m feeling teachy today, so here’s a short revision exercise for a pleasant autumn morning. It starts, naturally enough, with your current work in progress. Grab a sentence. Make it a nice long one, something you think isn’t bad but maybe needs some work. Or something you’re obscenely proud of. You get different results with different choices.
Next, put it through the wringer. Treat that sentence badly. Imagine the worst of it. Make it justify its every syllable and turn of phrase.
- Read it aloud. Get someone else to read it aloud. Get a machine to read it aloud. How does it sound? How closely does the sentence you imagined hearing sound like the one that hit your eardrums?
- Cut all of the following: actually, really, seems, started to, began to, turned to, sort of.
- Note all of the other adverbs and give them a serious frown so they know they’re in serious trouble.
- Now, home in on the verbs. Are they workmanlike, or even boring? Can they be punched up?
- What is this sentence for, anyway? Is it sidewalk, smoothly conveying the reader from Point A to Point B without calling attention to itself? Is it scenery, a delivery mechanism for sensual imagery? Is it striking an emotional chord, delivering a character speech, slipping in a bit of exposition, transitioning us to a new idea, or eliciting a laugh? Is it only doing one of these things? Should it do more? Damn these lazy sentences anyway!
- Now that you have a job description for the sentence, ask yourself: how well is it performing?
- What is the vaguest word in the sentence? Who let that word in?
- Is anyone declaring, exclaiming, simpering, snorting, purring, giggling, or sneering when they ought to just be saying, asking or replying? (Pro tip: Sneering is not a synonym for saying. It’s something you do with your lip.)
Wait a minute, I hear you saying – you just told me to punch up the verbs! This is true, but it doesn’t apply to said. Look up Said Bookisms in the Turkey City Lexicon if you need to know why.
- How is this sentence supposed to sound? Is it in a passage featuring the jangly off-road surprises of improvisational jazz, or an easy listening scene? Is it a classic country tragedy about a lost dog and a dead truck, or is it the Imperial March from Star Wars?
- If someone threatened to take a blowtorch to your favorite action figure, could you parse out the subject and object of this particular sentence? Do you need that semicolon, honestly? And if you do, are you sure you used it correctly?
- Take the eviscerated remains, smooth them out, and read the sentence again. How does it sound now?
This kind of interrogation works nicely on paragraphs and scenes too, of course, but remember to interview your subjects separately before examining them to see if they’ve got their stories straight.
Here’s the Imperial March to play you out.
You’ve all read the book whose protagonist moves ever so calmly from crisis to crisis. Maybe they experience the occasional pang of angst, but they never really need to do anything more dramatic about their problems than whip out the bastard sword (or the monster gun or ye holy guitar of rock godness or even their wand) and, y’know, lay waste. They’re together in a way that most of us aren’t.
From a reader’s point of view and the longer a novel goes on, this can be deeply alienating. No, we don’t always pick up fiction to read about someone as flawed and messily chaotic as the person falling apart, one cubicle over, from our desk at work. Most of us prefer to have a little bit of space from slow-motion drama explosions, real or fictional. But coolness, while it’s superficially attractive, is also distancing. It breeds remoteness. If someone is too cool, they become untouchable.
How do you find the balance between admirable and accessible? Here are five things you can check within your own writing:
We feel what they feel. Maybe Tyrion Lannister’s problems aren’t our problems (and for that, hooray!) But when his big sister’s carrying on about how she hates him for taking their mother’s love away, and why can’t he just die… well, what younger sibling hasn’t felt a shade or two of that? Tyrion’s an unlikely character, living in a shockingly hard-to-navigate world, but his sibling problems unlock a path into relating to him.
They snap when we’d snap. Behaving badly is part of character and there’s an art to choosing the moments when your mostly-nice characters devolve into rampant asshole behavior. (And, on the other side of things, the points where your evil ones experience those humanizing instances of benevolence.) Push them hard. Give them the emotional resources to put up with a certain amount of adversity, because few of us like a shrinking violet. Let them play it cool for awhile if that’s their thing… but at the point when any sane human being would break down, lash out or overreact, make it epic.
They have crimson or raven tresses, just like yours! Also: flashing violet eyes, adamantium manicures, bracing personal hygeine and an apostrophe in their N’Ame. No. I’m lying. That was a trick. The reason we like Harry Potter, if we do, probably isn’t that lightning scar. It’s the bravery, loyalty to friends and–for me, anyway–the fact that he hauls his ass in to work every day. Sure, work in this case means surviving and prevailing over he who can barely be spelled, but I dig perseverance.
Here’s one that’s crucial: they give a demonstrable shit about other people. I’m reading Fran Wilde’s Updraft right now, and there’s a crucial turn where her heroine believes she’s succeeded at something her best friend has failed at. And she’s happy for herself, and even takes time to celebrate, but she also spends a significant amount of time and energy thinking about ways to help that friend pick himself up off the not-ground and get back to his life.
They take risks. Sure, there are whole books about scaredy-cat wimptastic emotional basket-cases, guys who are so busy worrying about doing their job perfectly that they never ever extend themselves to make contact with another human being, but they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the rest of us are probably better off not trying to emulate him.
Part of putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes is believing you can fill them, and that is vastly more possible if they experience the range of human behavior, the noble and the petty, the humorous and the pathetic, the mundane and the glorious. No matter how awesome your characters are, let them break pattern now and then; give them a chance to be just like us. We’ll love them all the more for it.