Monday, July 2, 2012

Starting Points

Last month, I shared that on the first Monday of the month, I would share writing (and publishing) advice to those with specific questions. I've been privately tutoring writers for some time, and I'm familiar with just how wide the range of questions can be. With that in mind, I picked what should seem like a simple topic to kick off this monthly feature.

Where do I start? This is a question that could apply to so many things, and I'm going to break it down into some main subcategories, referencing things I've been told or asked.  

Ideas You have to tell me what to write about.

No, I do not. A lot of people tell me they want to be a writer but don't know what to write about. To put it bluntly, it's nobody's job to tell you what to write about. Not even your college professor if you're in a MFA course, or your spouse, or your writing group, or anyone else.

I'm amazed by the number of people who want to be freelance writers, but say they need someone to tell them what to write about because they can't think of anything. Ideas are everywhere. If you can't come up with ideas on your own, you aren't meant to be an author. You could be a ghost writer. You aren't meant to be a freelance writer, although it's possible you could work as a journalist.

That said, journalists need a nose for news and the ability to see a story without nobody telling them, "Go write about this." If you're starting out writing, and feel it's something you want to do, you should be able to come up with your own ideas. Read the newspaper, look at people around you, let your mind create scenarios.

Coming up with an idea isn't hard, but it is critical. A lot of writers think that writing is easy, and all they need is the next million dollar idea, and they'll be rich; typing it out is the easy part. Anyone who thinks that way is in for a rude awakening. Writing is work, and it's harder than people realize. It's your love for idea, your passion for the story you want to tell, that will sustain you when you hit a wall, when you don't feel motivated, and when the entire plot shifts sideways on you and you have no idea where to go next.  

For Love or Money? Another starting point for aspiring writers involves establishing your motivations. Be honest with yourself. If you have an idea and want to develop it, the love of the idea is going to motivate you, and your motivation for writing (at least at this point) is clear.

A lot of people say they don't care if they make money, or if they're traditionally published. Most of those people are lying. Most secretly want to complete the story they're in love with, have someone in the publishing industry fall in love with it, and be able to walk into stores a few months later and see their book on store shelves. If you're in love with the idea and proclaiming it's all about the art but secretly want to see your book traditionally published, then you need to at least be secretly realistic enough to research the publishing industry.

Figure out the genre, or subgenre, and find editors who champion those types of stories. Make sure you fit their guidelines and tailor your story to a workable form so that it can be published. If they only take manuscripts up to 70,000 words, don't send them 100,000.

 If you want to be a successful author, make enough money to quit the day job and write full-time, then you need to learn the business of publishing. You'd be well advised to spend as much time learning about the industry as you invest in the craft of writing. Go to conventions and conferences, meet authors and agents, and humble yourself enough to assume you don't know everything and actually listen to everything they're willing to tell you.

And then, get it right. Easier said than done, but that's a whole other blog post. However, I couldn't resist sharing this photo. Some idiot actually put this in print, and reproduced it on thousands of calendars. They may be nameless. I can't publicly humiliate them, or I would.

Sound cruel? As a Canadian, I'm totally offended at such an appalling error. It would be the equivalent of Canadian stores selling calendars that marked July 5 as Independence Day. What does that have to do with writing? If you make a factual mistake, be prepared to own it.

There are days I feel like I've heard it all. Getting it right doesn't matter because this is my art. Fine. Then I don't need to pay for it, compliment you, or indulge you. The writers I respect treat this like a business, they act professionally, they invest time in research, and they work hard to produce clean material. Anyone who wants to be published, particularly anyone who wants to have a traditional publisher, needs to treat their writing seriously and recognize that it's their job to get their material right. God bless the editors who take error-ridden material they'll edit, and the typesetters who have time to fix things when files are completely messed up. Bless 'em, but don't count on them.

For every author who'll see their book published this year, there are thousands who received rejection letters. If you seriously want to know where to start, writing is as much about acting like a professional and presenting the best possible material to publishers as it is about telling a story.

Submitting your manuscript is like going on a first date. If you showed up at my door with ripped, dirty clothes, bloodshot eyes and a green hue to your skin from the hangover you haven't quite shaken off yet, breath smelling like stale beer and a cigarette hanging from your fingers, the first date would have been the last before it even happened. As a writer, submitting your manuscript is like wooing an editor. You'll have a much better chance of winning their love if you show you've made an effort to get to know what they like, and give them exactly what they're looking for.  

Have something specific you want me to tackle next time? The comments are open.


Thomas Pluck said...

Fantastic post. Really, people ask for ideas? I just read an article about how spoiled and dependent American kids are, and this reminded me of that. "I dunno what to write about, whaaa..."
And then the "it's my aaart." Great, put it on your mom's refrigerator door. (I admit, I send my mom my stories. But I don't take her opinion over my other readers,' or an editor's.)

The date analogy fits. Because it is a matter of taste. Reminds me of a crazy Woman-hater I read recently. "I shave. I bathe. And yet I can't get a date." Yes, same for writers. "I punctuate properly. I passed English 101. Why aren't I published?"
Because there's a lot more involved, and the entitled attitude is a huge turn off in both dating and writing.

As many writers out there who denigrate the profession by selling off their self-respect, there are as many egotists who think the writing is all there is to being a writer. The job interview analogy also works here. You may have the skills, but you're not a good fit. Greenpeace and Goldman-Sachs both need admin assistants, IT people, PR folks... but I doubt they'd hire the same person for any of them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, I've had people tell me they just don't know what to write about and want me to tell them. For me, it's usually that I have too many competing ideas to decide what to work on next.

I found being contracted solved that. Inspiration followed the requirement. I'm not one of those people who believes solely in the muse. There are times I'm more inspired to write than others, but inspired or not, you plant your ass in the chair and do your job.