Friday, February 26, 2010

The 12 Step Plan

By Russel D McLean

Its one of the few times I’m gonna do this. I don’t like giving advice because, hell, I feel like I’m only getting my start in this gig too, and who the hell am I to tell you anything?

But the inbox has been getting more and more requests lately from folks who want to know “how do I become a published author?”

I don’t know the answers, really. Just go for it, is about as good as I can get. But maybe I do have some ideas about you can improve your chances, some guidelines, you might say. Mostly about attitude and expectation, because I’m not (yet) gonna tell you how to write. That’s a personal journey, and I don’t know if I can make blanket statements about it. (although if you want writing advice about structure etc, here's Wee Billy Shakespeare's 10 Rules O' Writing as told to Declan Burke) But in the meantime…

Call this the McLean twelve step plan. It does not come with any guarantees, but most of this worked for me. When I finally figured it out. Your mileage may vary. But then that's the nature of this crazy business we call writering, right?

Oh, and before we begin, I should warn Dave White up front that I might just be using footnotes.

Step 1) You gotta remember that you are not a prodigy.

You’re not gonna write that masterpiece right off the bat. You will have to serve time as an indentured wannabe. If you haven't already followed one of Mr White's links from the other week, then listen to this wise lady (who breaks one of my cardinal writing rules by overusing one word, but she’s talking to you and when you’re talking, you can get away with some things that are unforgiveable on the page*). And understand it took your humble beardy hero somewhere around sixteen years to get where he is now (I started taking everything very seriously at around fourteen).

Step 2) Don’t think you can buy your way into the business. There are no quick fixes.

Here it is: Anyone who pays to be published is a sucker. I’m sorry, but what other kind of job do you pay other people to employ you? A publisher’s that impressed by your work, they’ll be paying you.

And, yes, some folks have done well with self publishing. But those folks went all out and didn’t go through some half-arsed vanity press paying through the nose for half-arsed, ugly product. They took the hard road, and often for reasons other than the, “I’m taking my ball and going home” reasons so many head to the vanity presses. And trust me when I say they are the HUGE exception rather than the rule, and that many of them face even harder trials after publication, especially with trade reviews and some bookstores. Yes, some people can do it, but they are so lucky, the odds are pretty much incalculable.

Look, there are reasons why the industry needs gatekeepers, and I hate to break it to you but you may not be ready for publication right away. And no amount of money thrown at vanity publishers is gonna change that.

Step 3) Listen to criticism. Especially from folks who might just know what they’re talking about.

I know its tough, but when an editor says something, listen to them. Sure, some of its bullshit, but most of it actually turns out to be useful. These ladies and gents tend to know what they’re talking about**, so take what they say and think really hard about it.

Step 4) Write.

I know it sounds obvious, but as I once heard some corny American talk-show host say, “You gotta do to get it.” You want to be taken seriously as a writer, put in the hours. Put in the sweat. If its tough, you know you’re doing it right.

Step 5) Read

Yawn, yawn, I know.

This is the one you hear all the time, but if you ain’t reading other people’s work, why the hell would you expect anyone to read what you write? Add to that, you’ll start to get an idea of how this writing business works – its all about connection with the reader. When you know how you read, you can start to figure out how you write. And, yes, TV shows and movies can also help with story structure etc if you approach them in the right way. Matter of fact, I learned a lot about structure watching movies. But even though I advocate the usage, love and assimilation of other media, listen to me when I say, YOU STILL GOTTA READ.

Step 6) Remain humble in all things

The best writers I have met tend to be the ones who have a sense of humility, who know and understand their limits… and then work to exceed them. They do not blow their own trumpet, constantly tell everyone how they are the best damn writer in the world and everyone else can kiss their arse***. This humility will come in handy later when you realise that not everyone in the world is going to love you or your books. In fact, I’d recommend a sense of humour, too. Laugh at yourself. A lot. Trust me, it’ll make things easier in the long term.

Step 7) Redraft. And when you done that, redraft again.

Writing is rewriting.

Deal with it.

Step 8) Make the time.

If you’re going to constantly moan about not starting that big book because of lack of time, don’t bother. Now, we all get caught up in things. I am currently behind on a big project because of the way real life has intruded. But I’m still writing. Every day. Now, you don’t have to write every day, but if you don’t write on at least a good percentage of them, what’s the point? Its like signing up to a gym to lose that mass from your stomach and then whining when you don’t lose the weight after not actually going to the gym****

Step 9) Be true to who you are.

The wondrous Joelle said it best in her first post: you can’t fake your voice or your style, so don’t try. Be comfortable with who you are as a writer. This may take some time, but when it happens, oh you’ll know it and you’ll feel the benefits.

Step 10) Love what you do

While maintaining that humility about yourself I mentioned earlier, you also have to be excited about what you write. Love your words. Love your stories. You characters. Genuine enthusiasm always shines through.

Step 11) Writer’s block? Sod that.

The words not coming? Don’t whinge about writing block. Just get off your arse and write something. Anything. Even, say, a 12 step plan for those who would foolishly try and follow your chosen career path. There’s a reason journalists make good fiction writers. Reporters can’t piss about waiting for the muse to strike, to slightly misquote the very wise Tony Black.

Step 12) Get yourself an agent. A good one. They’re easy to find, although hard to court.

Agents are invaluable. I’ve said that before. Now I’ll say it again. But trust me when I say that you need to be wary when choosing an agent. Look at their client list. Look at their records. If they’re legit, likelihood is they’ll have a website with much of this information free to view. You’ll see the books they’ve sold and the people they work with, and this’ll help you work out if they might be a good match. And if they ask for money up front… run like buggery.

So, there it is. My 12 step plan. There are no guarantees, but maybe some of this will help you... or dissuade you from ever asking me for advice again...

And if that 12 step plan ain't enough for you, howsabout this one from D-Wayne and Larry Love?

*According to one independent source, I used the word “homage” on the night of THE LOST SISTER launch at least thirty times – what can I say, I found a good gag and I stuck with it.
** Except for the plainly cruel rejections – like my famous, crumpled, battered “my kids didn’t like it either” letter that still earns me a good laugh every so often.
***Well, maybe James Ellroy might make such grand statements. But he’s Ellroy and exists on a very different plane from the rest of us mortals.
****there may be some biography here. Or not.


Dana King said...

Not only great and practical advice, but an A3 reference! Sweet. I'm hooking up EXILE ON COLDHARBOUR LANE when I get home. Thanks for the tickle.

If I might be so bold as to add an extra item, though i can't really call it a 13th step, as it doesn't fall at the end chronologically: no whining. Writing can be a pain, it can be emotionally trying, it can be disappointing. Deal with it. You don't like any of the above, quit. Try golf or sewing or exercise. But don't whine. No one wants to hear it. No one.

Scott D. Parker said...

The only one I have some issues with is Number 9: "Be True to yourself." I sometimes wonder what I'm supposed to be writing. I'm experimenting this year by drafting short stories and submitting them to various place all with different genres and styles. I'm looking forward to the light bulb moment...

Mike Dennis said...

I would agree with everything in your well-thought-out 12 steps, Russel, except no. 12, Get Yourself An Agent. Whenever I hear someone say this, it always sounds about as challenging as going to the kitchen and getting a beer out of the refrigerator.

I know that you know the score with agents, but you surely also know that "getting an agent" is not something that a writer simply decides to do and then simply does it. Especially a "good" agent. Of course, you said they're "hard to court", but that doesn't begin to describe the bomb-proof wall that stands between agents and those who are trying to get an agent.

The odds against anyone breaching that wall are very, very long indeed and are not even hinted at in the facile phrase, "Get yourself an agent".