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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Two inalienable rules which you break at your peril

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Aha, you have leapt to my blog believing you are going to be given two outstanding tips for writing success, both of which you will be able to pin above your laptop as you pound the keys.

Sorry to disappoint, but today’s rules are not quite like that and have been dragged from the earthenware pot of practicality and from my sorry pounding head (see below). I feel too grotty to write much today (see below again), but here are two proven aids for a happy life.

The first is this:  Always be polite when you answer the telephone

One of the things that drives me crazy about living in the USA is SALES CALLS. I immediately see all you Americans nodding madly, and Brits looking a bit baffled.  In the course of any working day my phone will ring many, many times with dropped calls (some machine has decided another sucker picked up before me), mortage services, information about preferential rates on credit cards, charitable collections, political schmoozing etc etc etc.

When you’ve run for the phone ten times in one day only to get this nonsense, your temper starts to fray (just how many times CAN you say PLEASE TAKE ME OFF YOUR DATABASE I AM A BUSINESS!). In fact, a cold caller hung up on ME last week because I was curt with him. Unbelievable!

But when you have a manuscript out on submission the stakes get even higher. Every phone call could be THE CALL – either good or bad. The one that makes or breaks a writer’s dreams; the game changer.  And you never quite know which it will be.

It would be nice if the phone display forewarned you. A hint like THIS PHONE CALL IS CRUCIAL would help enormously, but sadly Verizon and Cox haven’t yet offered this service. So meanwhile all I can do is look for the magic number – which is usually 212. 

212. The code for New York. The Code of Destiny.

And so it was last Friday, when my phone rang in the morning, the magic numbers popping up on the display. One deep breath and I pick up, suddenly measured and charming. A very hoarse-sounding Donna Bray (Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins) came on the line.  Hoarse because she was in the throes of a whopping cold (see below yet again), but couldn’t admit defeat and go home to her bed before she had called me with a preemptive offer on the thrilling debut novel I had sent her – SLIDE by Jill Hathaway.

This phone call was everything a writer and agent might dream of. A great editor and publisher passionately wanting an author and leaping in with a two-book preempt that was on the table that day only.

We had other interest – I immediately visualized several VERY disconsolate editors looking at me reproachfully – but we had to go with it. It was the perfect ending, the dream ending, to the rollercoaster of submission and an amazing affirmation of all Jill Hathaway’s hard work and commitment to her first novel, which will be publishing early 2012 (look for more info on this site very soon).

One phone call is all it takes in the business. Always be polite when you pick up because you never know what news might be waiting on the other end of the line!

My second tip is this: If you feel poorly, do not go to meetings

Last week a bunch of guys met for some meetings the other side of the state. One of them (I have purposely forgotten his name, but may a pox be upon it) wasn’t feeling well.  After the event, about five of the other guys went down with the same thing. They then all went home to their families. One of them came home to ME. Three days later I went down with it too. And now I’m thinking, Am I really going to be OK for the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference on Saturday????? For all those critiques and the agent-panel moderation? I HAVE TO BE ALL RIGHT! I MUST BE ABLE TO TALK ALL DAY!

The problem is, we all feel we have to soldier on, whatever. As my son says, everyone thinks you’re ‘a big girl’s blouse’ if you let a bad cold stop you.

Er, WHAT? I hear you Americans say.  What on earth is a ‘big girl’s blouse’?!  Look, I didn’t invent the expression, I am merely a cultural conduit. It’s Brit-speak for when you’re soft, you’re feeble. (If it makes it any better, I think the ‘big’ bit refers to the blouse rather than the girl.)

Anyway, may I just say that you are not being a big girl’s blouse for staying home when you are poorly. You are possibly doing those of us who live hundreds of miles away from you but are on SCBWI faculties a great favour!

Oh, and I also have a third tip for the day: Always remember to turn off your house alarm BEFORE you let your dogs out.

Just sayin’.

Have a good week.

Sarah, the queen of Kleenex and Day Nurse.
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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A Kipling moment

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It’s been a lean couple of weeks, blog-wise. Too much going on to write, given I’ve had the SCBWI Montana conference over in Bozeman, followed by just two days in the office before leaving crack of dawn last Thursday for a hectic time seeing publishers in New York.  All aspects of this business covered in just a few days, from aspiring authors learning their craft to the editors who – along with their respective teams – make the decisions on what to buy.

How I visualize this process is as a long funnel, which starts very wide (all the many writers who want to create a story and submit) and ends very narrow (the number who actually pop out as authors with deals).  The funnel gets practically microscopic when we look for those who’ve made it not only into deals but into bestsellerdom!

The journey from one end of the funnel to the other can be long and torturous or fast and (apparently) easy. But don’t be seduced by the stories you read about books being written in dreams/in a few afternoons over a bottle of wine/in a month or two. Lots of those stories are played up to sound exciting, and the ones that are completely true are very, very rare.  The path to publication – or to a second/third/fourth deal – is more usually scattered with stones and potholes and there are going to be a few really bloody knees on the way.

A literary agency is at any one time a ferment of things happening, from the superb to the interesting to the frustrating.  We had our fair share of superb this past week – notably with Brenna Yovanoff’s THE REPLACEMENT debuting on the NYT Bestseller list, but also with a couple of great deals in the run-up to Frankfurt.

But not all pots bubble beautifully just when you want to them to, and all this is so much on my mind at the moment that I want to give you some thoughts that popped into my head as I flew through the darkness to Denver/waited in the doctor’s surgery/bought my veg at Giant.  And I’m illustrating them with shots from last week’s brilliant Yellowstone trip (kindly organized by Regional Advisor for Montana, Michele Corriel) since erupting geysers, bubbling pools and general wasteland can feel quite appropriate when contemplating the writing life!

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Anyway, here are my thoughts on skills/abilities you might seek to cultivate in order to make your authorial passage down the funnel more peaceful.  Some of them are truisms, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

1 Try to take the challenges (ie, the stuff you find really, really hard) and turn them into opportunities. That means an opportunity to learn, to think outside the envelope, to look again with fresh eyes, to discover depths of strength within yourself.  What did you learn this time? What might you do differently next time? How can you improve?

2 Take a long view of a long game.  Generally, Rome was not built in a day, and careers are rarely built in a moment.  Think long term – how are you going to get there, even if the short term doesn’t look quite as rosy as you’d like. Be open to bending in the wind - encouraging a flexibility within yourself. 

3 Cultivate patience.  Most things in writing and publishing take a long time. Often a VERY long time. You can wait weeks to hear back on submissions. You can be rejected by 14 and hit with number 15.  You can miss with your first manuscript and hit with your second.  You can wait months for your contract to be negotiated and signed.  Months for your edits.  A lot of this makes watching paint dry look exciting.  Are you up for that – or how will you deal with it?

4 Meditate, ponder, breathe your way to a place that feels more peaceful.  Whatever it takes, strive to stay calm and balanced. That’s how you will help yourself produce your best work and most philosophical frame of mind.  [Believe me, I find this hard too.]

5 Remember that you can always keep improving at your craft and that things change.  So even if your first and second revisions feel like rubbish, your third could be The One!  I could mention some very big-selling titles that went the rounds for months before they ended up in the right shape for the market (you might be amazed).

6 Bear in mind that books are bought by teams of people, not individuals.  Which makes one person’s (or five people’s) enthusiasm not always enough. What matters is the offer, and a whole lot of people have to be on board to agree that.

7 Remind yourself that the destination will always change. At first the destination may seem to be getting an agent. But then it becomes getting a deal. Ah, then it turns into selling the book off the shelf (physical or electronic). But what about the next deal . . . .?  The destination is a moving target; it changes as your expectations of yourself grow.

8 It’s not really a question of ‘living the dream’ as a published writer, so ban that phrase.  The Dream is very hard work, with ups and downs and huge amounts of hard work.  In fact, the dream turns out to be as complex as most jobs, full of challenge and satisfaction, in varying measure.

9 Prepare for how you will take disappointment and knock-backs - or a long period without resolution.  It may or may not happen, but most of us just want to KNOW and then move on. In the books business, especially on submission, resolution can be quite a while coming.  How can you best reinforce your psyche?

10 Don’t brood over other writers’ blog posts or tweets.  Oh yes, it’s so easy to read what others choose to say about themselves and think, ‘Hey, why does it all go so brilliantly for them and not me?’ When we social network, we ‘brand’ ourselves. We say things that show ourselves in our best light. Behind those words are other layers of truth that those people will not be sharing.  So, presume it’s like an iceberg – you are seeing the top bit only – the majority is down below the waterline, well hidden.

11 If you are a published author DO NOT keep checking your Amazon ranking or Google yourself.  You will descend into a spiral of madness and we will have to stretcher you away and feed you through a straw. I’m serious – because unless you are in the top 10 of the nation’s sellers you are going to feel distressed and envious. [The agent equivalent of this is NEVER do a search for yourself on Verla Kay’s Blueboards.]

12 Laugh with disdain at THE X FACTOR or AMERICA’S GOT TALENT because the books world is not that world.  I have this view that we’re all slightly infected with that kind of outlook – that MY AMAZING DREAMS COULD COME TRUE VERY EASILY AND QUICKLY!  In our business it’s more a question of quiet, steady work over a long period of time.

13 Remember that this business is mercurial and capricious – subject to change and unpredictability.  It is not personal – it is business. Your manuscript is not YOU – it is your work. Decisions by publishers have a lot to do with a commercial marketplace; they are not just about your ability to create a nice story or turn a good sentence.

14 Study the rhinoceros and pin photographs of these beasts above your laptop. The rhino has a lovely thick hide. Little birds and insects jump around on that skin and the rhino is oblivious!  Graft some rhino hide on to yourself so you are not exposed to every nuance and passing breeze that could hurt you.  Practice a rhino roar!

15 Get lots of exercise.  Find your outlet. A wall you kick. A martial art you study. Or like me, stride around your neighbourhood in a leather cowboy hat ranting to yourself. Gradually your neighbours will catch on and start to say, ‘Oh, don’t mind about HER – she’s a writer. She can’t help it, she’s a bit crazy, poor love.’

16 Meditate on our friend Mr Kipling, who said it big time:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Impostors just the same;
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

Everyone knows that one, but even more importantly I shall leave you with this Kipling quote, which I actually much prefer:

THE PRESENT IS BIG WITH THE FUTURE.


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