So, you’ve decided to write a book. You have a great hook, memorable characters, and a detailed outline. The entire story is in your head and now comes the simple process of putting those thoughts down in a coherent and unique manner; oh, and then convincing a publisher that your book has the potential to turn a profit. What could go wrong?
There is nothing more exhilarating and daunting than staring at a blank page and considering the possibilities it presents. Few things are also more overwhelming, especially for a newbie author. And even if you have Faulkneresque potential, without the proper guidance and tools, such potential will remain just that.
With all that in mind, I thought it may be helpful if I outlined a few of the resources I utilized when writing FATE’S PAST. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and I will update if and when I discover more handy assets.
For simplicity sake, I will divide this entry into three sections: pre-drafting, drafting, and post-drafting. Each of these three processes possesses its own challenges that must be overcome.
And so, let’s dive in with a few pre-drafting resources I believe can be valuable to any aspiring novelist.
Stephen King’s ON WRITING
ON WRITING is my writing best friend, my constant literary companion. My wife gave it to me before I started writing FATE’S PAST—apparently, she googled “best gifts for an aspiring writer;” Google sure nailed that one.
I read ON WRITING twice before writing FATE’S PAST and a third time when I hit a writing roadblock on what was then page 110. For those who have not read it, ON WRITING is part autobiography, part “How To” guide, and both sections are equally valuable to an aspiring writer. King’s tone is perfectly on-point—learned without seeming pretentious, simplistic without being pandering. King utilizes second person point-of-view throughout much of the book, and he talks to the reader as a pupil—he respects your journey, but wants to let you know that you have a hard road ahead.
I’ve found that certain parts of the book truly resonate with different readers. For example, my favorite section involves King’s desire as a young writer to someday own an ornate writing desk. Then, when King finally is successful enough to obtain such a desk, he spent six years sitting “behind the desk either drunk or wrecked of [his] mind . . .” This is a beautiful and adept metaphor as well as a reminder that a writer must always keep his or her feet on the ground.
ON WRITING is also one of the most quotable books I have ever encountered. Indeed, it contains my all-time favorite writing-related quote:
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
Here are a few other memorable quotes:
- “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
- “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
- “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
- “To write is human, to edit is divine.”
- “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
- “Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do― to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”
Honestly, ON WRITING is like The Big Lebowski of novels—immensely quotable from start to finish.
I had a hard time deciding if this belonged here or in the “Post-Drafting” section. Truly, it belongs in both—after finishing, PM is a great researching resource; before starting, PM is a great motivator. I decided to put PM here as it is a nice introduction for any new writer to the publishing world.
In short, PM is a database of publishing professionals: agents, publicists, and writers. But more so, it is a database of what these professionals are doing: PM highlights what agents are selling, and what publicists are buying. With enough analysis, one can decipher distinct patterns in what genres are selling well, but do not let these patterns deter you, for there is always a market for a well-written book.
The only problem with PM is that it is littered with many industry-specific (and even website-specific) terms that may confuse a layperson; the following is a non-exclusive list of such terms:
- The monetary worth of a book “deal” is divided into the following category: “nice” deals ($1 – $49,000), “very nice” deals ($50,000 – $99,000), “good” deals ($100,000 – $250,000), “significant” deals ($251,000 – $499,000), and “major” deals ($500,000+).
- “Auction.” If a manuscript attracts enough interest from publishers, an agent can organize an “auction,” whereby publishers will bid on the rights to the book.
- “Pre-empt.” If, however, a publisher has such a strong interest in a book that it does not want said book to hit the auction, that publisher can come in before the auction with a strong deal and “pre-empt.”
Let’s apply these terms to a recent deal entry on PM: “Molly Prentiss’s TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980, set in the vibrant downtown New York art scene in the era of artists such as Koons and Basquiat when art – and the commercialization of it – collide, and following the twin trajectories of an Argentinian artist on the rise and the prestigious art critic who discovers him, to Alison Callahan at Scout Press, in a major deal, in a pre-empt, in a two-book deal, by Claudia Ballard at William Morris Endeavor (NA).” So, Molly Presentiss’s agent, Claudia Ballard, organized a book auction for TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980, but Scout Press pre-empted this auction with a two-book deal worth over $500,000. Yay for Molly!
Genre is something you should think about as early as possible in the writing process. Do you want to be a genre writer, or do you want to be a pure literary fiction author? Or does your book lay somewhere between the two extremes? I posit that, as a debut writer, you have a greater chance at landing a publishing deal if your book at least has a genre hook.
Of course, it’s not a requirement that you know exactly where your book fits before you finish. I didn’t realize until after I finished FATE’S PAST that I was writing a horror novel. And had I known my horror proclivities going in, I would have joined the Horror Writers Association (“HWA”) much sooner.
For any aspiring or established horror writer, the HWA is a great organization. If you are unpublished, you can still join as a “contributing” member—and trust me, there is nothing wrong with that level. It is less expensive and you are provided access to most of the perks—you get to post on the forums, receive the Imailer, join the database of other horror writers, etc. Best of all, you get to vote on the Bram Stoker awards, which recognize superior achievement in a host of different horror-specific categories.
For more information about the HWA, visit their website: http://horror.org/.
In any event, to the extent you can identify the genre of your book and get plugged into that world, you will be in a better position to market yourself to agents and publisher. Here are a few more genre specific writing organizations you may want to research…
Three Comparable Works
Yes, I realize your book is a unique butterfly; so is FATE’S PAST. But as the saying goes, “pride cometh before the fall.” I will say this—I had much greater luck pitching FATE’S PAST once I decided to list three “comparable” works in my query letter. That’s not to say the works I listed were similar—they were merely comparable. Comparable in structure, writing style, themes, whatever. Indeed, the Publisher Marketplace press releases often contain such comparisons: “Blogger and freelance copywriter Kathy Parks’s THE LIFEBOAT CLIQUE, pitched as MEAN GIRLS meets LIFE OF PI, to Claudia Gabel and Katherine Tegen at Katherine Tegen Books, in a pre-empt, in a two-book deal, by Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).”
Bottom line, agents and publishers are looking for books that will sell. And their jobs are made much easier to the extent they can compare your work to a few books with a history of sales.
To be clear, you don’t even have to compare your book to those of the same genre. For example, I listed Neil Gaiman’s THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE as a comparable title, which is far from a supernatural horror novel; FATE’S PAST and OCEAN, however, contain many of the same thematic elements.
Ok, so you’ve identified three comparable works. Great job! What now? Well, read the books, of course! But beyond reading, learn about the works—research what inspired the authors. Find out how the books were marketed. All this information will help you increase your knowledge base and improve your chances of eventually getting published.
I will draft an entire blog post (or two) about why Twitter is a necessity for aspiring writers. But for now, let me say that: if you are an unpublished writer, join Twitter. Now. And after you join, get plugged into the Twitter writing community—follow writers, agents, and publishing houses. Soon, you will gain followers of your own; and when you do sign a publishing contract, you can use your Twitter page to cross market your other social media platforms—for example, you can send direct messages asking that new followers “like” your Facebook author page. You can tweet about your new blog posts. You can inform your followers about the release date of your book. Twitter is a great introduction to the power of social media and the perfect gateway to enhance your other social media marketing endeavors.
Twitter can even help you get published—every so often, Twitter hosts “pitch” parties, where unpublished and unagented authors tweet their manuscript “pitches.” If an agent or publisher likes a pitch, he or she will “favorite” that tweet. The largest pitch party is “#pitmad,” and you can find more information about it here: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitmad/. As for suggestions on who to follow on Twitter, here are a few of my favorites…