Thursday, May 21, 2009

What Writers Need to Keep Going

Elizabeth Zelvin

Most professional writers agree that to get the first book published and and then keep a writing career in play, you need the hide of a rhinoceros. For years, I kept on my bulletin board an old Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy is lying on top of his doghouse reading a letter: “Dear Author, This is the worst novel I have ever read. Your writing stinks.” In the last frame, Snoopy consoles himself by thinking, “It must be a form rejection letter.”

If you go to conferences and read interviews with writers, you know that very few got either their agent or their publisher on the first try. I’ve heard it said more than once that on the average, it takes eight to ten years to get the first novel published. Along with the form rejections and the occasional agent or editor who hates one’s book are the heartbreaking rave rejections: “I loved it—but not quite enough.” “You’ve got it all—fine writing, characters, plot, suspense; I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting it published elsewhere.”

Once that first book comes out, the pressure to produce at least a book a year is tremendous, especially in the mystery world, where series are the norm. And now beleaguered authors not only have to write the next book and promote the first, but also deal with bad reviews, readers who didn’t like their work, emails from experts (genuine and self appointed) saying they got the details wrong, and their own self doubt. I have heard a number of successful authors admit that the fear that this time they’ll fail to come up with a publishable story doesn’t go away, even after the seventeenth book in a series or the third major award.

One mark of the professional writer is openness to critique. It’s hard to write in isolation—and nowadays, essential for aspiring writers to connect not only with “critters” but with those who can teach professional submission behavior and open doors to the newly published. Once upon a time, Thomas Wolfe brought a messy several-hundred-page pile of manuscript to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who shaped it into a bestselling novel. This happened in 1929, and people are still talking about it. That’s because it doesn’t happen any more. It doesn’t take much toughness to pour it all out and count on someone else to fix it. Today’s writers have to self critique rigorously as well as being prepared to take in feedback from their critique groups and partners, assess it, and make decisions about which suggestions to accept and use. Then they have to listen to the comments of agents, editors, and copy editors before publication and the whole world once the book appears.

So writers have got to be tough. Yet they must also be sensitive, or how would they empathize with their characters? How do they strike a balance? For me, the key elements I’ve identified so far are self-awareness, detachment, and time. I need to know my craft and love at least some of what I write. Yet I need to know the weaknesses in my writing. I need to identify aspects of craft I have not yet mastered and how to go about improving. I need to remain teachable in both a practical and a spiritual sense. I need to discern the difference between critique and personal attack—most writers encounter both in the course of a career. In my particular case, I need to know that “I can’t” is part of my process—a transient fear, akin to stagefright, that crops up at the beginning of every new project, sometimes every day of writing—and push through it time after time. And I need to know that becoming a better writer is a journey, not a destination that I can reach instantaneously if the perfect agent or the long-sought first contract or even the lucky break will only beam me up.

The cover of Death Will Get You Sober, designed by David Rotstein, has been nominated for an Anthony award for best cover art. Voting will take place at Bouchercon in Indianapolis in October.


Sheila Connolly said...

Shhhh--you don't want all those hopeful almost-published writers to know that it isn't all peaches and cream once you have a book on the shelves.

You're absolutely right about staying open to constructive criticism, even though it's always going to hurt. I think we've seen too many established authors who more or less phone in their seventeenth book, and it shows. It's like a long-term marriage: the readers stick to you, even though the fire is gone and they know all your flaws.

But we thrive on a weird combination of hope and frustration, right?

RhondaL said...

Naw, I know that The Big Goal of being published is only one step on on the journey. :)

But my skin is thickening. Recently, a writer friend went over a short story and pointed out a lot of stuff that would have made The Old Me/"young me?" slink off somewhere to sulk.

But this time, I was excited to be told where I'm making mistakes.

Barbara Monajem said...

Yes! I've had some of my best advice from contest judges who gave me mediocre scores. It's lovely to get kudos, but they don't help improve one's writing (except for the encouragement itself, which is soooo welcome).

When someone hates my writing, I remind myself that the same manuscript a critiquer slammed is the very one an editor bought.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

During Edgars Week, I heard both newly appointed MWA Grand Masters, Sue Grafton and James Lee Burke, admit to having had to throw away false starts of as much as 60 pages. It gave me courage to do the same thing with my own WIP recently. Well, I didn't really throw it AWAY--I guess that takes true mastery of the craft--but I discarded it and started over on a different WIP. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Both James Lee Burke and Nevada Barr went through long, long periods when -- after having already been published -- they couldn't sell anything. For Barr, I believe, this down period lasted 10 years. Publishing one book, two, or more doesn't guarantee you'll be able to sell the next one you write. Unless you're James Patterson. :-)

I have to admit it's been quite a while since I wrote anything I absolutely loved. I'm surprised when one of my critiquers points out a line or paragraph and says, "I love this!" Surprised, but also relieved and grateful. And I always feel that it really *could* be better, if I can figure out how to make it so.

Julia Buckley said...

It's definitely a tightrope. And I think the biggest problem for me (maybe for lots of writers) is that I get to a point with my WIP that I just start hating it, no matter how good I thought it was to start out with. I just become satiated, and I'm done with it.

That makes revision difficult, and it also makes it difficult to believe readers who say they like it. I am already at that point at which I think, "Really? Why?" :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Julia, I know exactly what you mean! I don't understand how some writers can spend five or six years working on one book. I wouldn't be able to stand the sight of the thing after the second year -- maybe sooner!

I also don't know how any writer can bear to reread his/her books. Recently I heard a bestselling writer say she rereads ALL of her books once a year. She says she loves her books and loves rereading them. When I look at one of my books just to check something that will be mentioned in my w.i.p., all I see are sentences, paragraphs, chapters I wish I could rewrite.