Pop quiz time!
Now hold on–don’t go away. I promise there’s no maths involved. But there may be cookies.
Six months ago, Jimmy finished his first novel. He started writing it because he turned forty and god dammit it was time to shit or get off the pot. It took him nine months to write the first draft. Because Jimmy wanted to do this right, he also relied on a critique group to help him whip his Steampunk Western into shape. He didn’t balk when they said his characterization was flat and his dialog stilted. He sat back down and did his best to remedy these issues. Then he asked his good friend, the English teacher, to help him hunt down typos and grammar issues. While he was working on revisions, he also diligently read books and blogs on publishing. He follows several agents and editors on twitter. He made lists of agents who rep his genre and editors looking for books like his. He’s paid attention. He’s done his homework.
Finally, the time came and he sent out ten query letters–perfectly formatted and error-free. He’d vetted his letter first, naturally. Much to his delight he actually gets a few requests for partials and even one for a full manuscript. He went to writing conferences and pitched in person even though it made his bladder feel like a bowling ball in his gut. More requests followed.
But then the rejections started rolling in. “… competent writing, interesting premise, but I just didn’t fall in love.” Soon his inbox is filled with Dear John, It’s not you, it’s your book letters. But he’s a figher, this Jimmy. Every rejection is like waving a red flag at a bull. He digs his heels in, sends more queries.
Only to receive more rejections.
After six months, the bitterness starts to creep in. The disillusionment. Those idiots in New York wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them in the ass! MY critique groups loved it! The agents who read it said it showed promise!
The quiz, my friends, is this: What should Jimmy do next?
A. Keep sending out queries–it only takes one yes!
B. Do more revisions. If it just keeps working on it, it’ll get there!
C. Who needs New York? Jimmy should sell that glorious bastard of a book himself!
D. Why are you asking us stupid questions? I came here for answers.
While none of these choices are wrong, none of them is exactly right, either. The proper answer in my opinion (and yes, most writing advice is just the opinion of the answerer) is actually choice E.
Choice E goes like this: Jimmy needs to put that book in a metaphorical drawer and get to writing a new book.
But, but, but … Jaye he put so much work into that book. He did everything right! He researched and revised and, and, and …
Hush, my pets. I hear you. Writing the first book is tough business. The learning curve is steep. And when you manage to finish it and most of the feedback you hear is encouraging, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking your apprenticeship is complete.
It most emphatically is not.
When I finally got the call from my first agent–the one who eventually sold RED-HEADED STEPCHILD in a preempt–his first question to me was, “How many books have you written?”
I told him RHSC was my third completed novel.
His answer? I”m paraphrasing, but it was a lot like, “I thought so. You can always tell when someone has a few books under their belts.”
I see some of you sneering. “It might have taken YOU three books, but it will only take me one. My mother said my first novel is genius.”
No, honey, it’s probably not anywhere near genius.
Look, I won’t lie–I have several friends who sold their first novels. It does happen. But here’s the dirty little secret: The minute you get a publishing contract you suddenly have several people expecting you do do a repeat performance on demand in front of an extremely critical audience with money on the line and potential legal repercussions if you fail.
So why not give yourself the gift of time to hone your craft before your throw yourself into the show? The struggles of the amateur–the dues paid–prepare you for being a professional. All those rejections and the critiques you need to mercilessly pursue prepare you for the slings and arrows of editors, reviewers and readers who do not love you and won’t say nice things just to spare your feelings.
Besides, you may love that book now, but I guarantee that in five years you’ll read it and wish someone had slapped you upside the head and stole it from you so you couldn’t make an ass out of yourself.
Like I’m about to do.
To illustrate my point about first books, I thought I’d share you with you some samples from the first projects I ever attempted. My stomach is churning about this because I’m mortified. But then I reminded myself that I talk a lot about people allowing themselves to be a novice and these are merely early examples of my own apprenticeship mistakes. But feel free to point and laugh because they are, indeed, pretty embarrassing. But then that is the whole point of this exercise.
The first example is a novel I didn’t complete (and you’ll see why in a moment). It was supposed to be a historical romance, but I couldn’t ever decide on a historical time period or country for the setting. Also? There are gypsies, which is why my working title was GYPSY WOMAN. Jesus.
Samantha sat at the table in front of Ila with a barely concealed grin on her face. The old gypsy was focusing on the tarot cards she was laying on the table in front of Sam. Why her maid insisted on this foolishness was beyond Sam. But she knew Ila meant well and plus it was kind of fun to pretend that the old woman’s predictions might hold a grain of truth. Of course she knew that her fate was already sealed and that she had no choice in the matter. Focus on the reading, she told herself. Outside the tent she could hear the sounds of merriment. She listened to the sounds of tambourines and drums for a few second before Ila was ready to interpret the meaning of the cards on the table.
“I see a man,” she said. “He has dark hair and light eyes. He is not what he seems.”
“Well that’s helpful,” said Sam, ignoring Ila’s look.
Ila drew in her breath sharply and smiled before she said, “My dear this second card is very lucky—it usually signifies true love.”
Sam snorted and received another disgusted look.
Cue my own disgusted look. I want to go back in time so I can slap myself. So far we begin with a huge swath of backstory, followed by cliches, ridiculous repetition of names, and completely anachronistic dialogue. I wrote this 11 years ago.
The second example is from the first book I ever completed, a projected titled THE ART OF LOVING A VAMPIRE. I wrote it in 2006 and received something like 20 rejections before I moved on. I’m so, so glad I did. To wit:
Sydney Worth muttered to herself as she climbed the ladder. A sadistic man must have invented high heels, she decided.
Three-inch heels weren’t her first choice of footwear, but she didn’t really have a choice. Two weeks earlier her boss had made a snide comment about her sensible flats. She loathed giving the man any more ammunition against her, thus the pointy-toed torture devices which currently clung to the tenth rung.
After she steadied herself, she used her glove-encased hands to straighten the frame of the Gainsborough landscape.
Most curators relied on maintenance staff to handle routine tasks like this, but not Sydney. The European gallery was her domain. She felt responsible for making sure it looked its best.
Besides, she liked getting out of her small office and spending time with the art. It calmed her. And with a boss like Marvin Stiggler, she needed all the calm she could get.
“Jorge, is it straight?” she called out to her assistant, who was supposed to be helping her.
She sighed impatiently.
“Damn it, Jorge, is it straight or not?”
“It looks pretty good from here,” a deep, very un-Jorge-like voice responded. Her female parts went on red alert.
Every writerly instinct you have should be on red alert, along with Sydney’s lady parts. This is shit. Better shit than the first example, but still pretty stinky. Not only do we see proof of why I abandoned the romance genre in favor of urban fantasy–I can’t seem to resist horrible cliches and purple prose in romances–but also writing that is forced and self-conscious. I have no confidence in my voice as a writer here and thus relied on cliche and a “cute meet” to cover the obvious flaws. Now, I will say I seem to have worked out some of my pacing issues–not starting with dense block of text is a definite improvement. And there’s a spark of … something here, but it’s not good.
Now I’d like to share with you an example from SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL, which was written in 2011–six years after I wrote my first completed novel.
Blue lights flashed off the undersides of leaves. Off the tall brick buildings. Off the stoic faces of New York’s finest. The cops formed a tight circle around a tarp-covered body next to a Dumpster. Its lid gaped open like the mouth of a shell-shocked witness.
After three months on a steady diet of bagged blood, the aroma of a fresh human kill hooked me by the nose and dragged me toward the crime scene. The humans around me could smell the stink of trash and acid rain and gritty city. But they couldn’t detect the coppery scent that made my fangs throb against my tongue.
Delicious. Seductive. Forbidden.
Bright yellow police tape cordoned off the entrance to the park. Spectators gathered in a tight clutch on the sidewalk along Central Park West. Their morbid curiosity clung to their faces like Greek tragedy masks.
I shouldn’t have paid any attention. I shouldn’t have stopped. And I definitely shouldn’t have pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
But the blood called to me.
What a difference six years makes, right? Whether or not this is your cup of tea writing-wise, I think the improvement over previous attempts is pretty obvious. I’m comfortable in my own words now. You might notice that unlike the previous tow examples, this excerpt is in first person pov. I didn’t figure out that it was the most natural POV for me until my second completed novel, which I called my close-but-no-cigar book because it got a ton of requests and positive feedback but ultimately failed to win over any editors.
Looking back, I can see the trajectory of my writing skills clearly. With each book I learned new things about my writing and myself as a writer. I needed time to play and experiment without constraint. And like it or not, the instant you land that golden egg of a contract your choices become limited.
So, please, grasshopper, don’t force it. Foster patience. Give yourself permission to be a novice. Put that first book aside and write something else–or better, several somethings else. After you’ve done it awhile you can decide if you want to go down the yellow brick road to a Legacy publishing contract or go your own way. But not now. Now you need to keep the faith and give yourself time. Trust me, it’ll pay off in spades down the road.