Don’t Cut Your Own Throat

Hi, Gang.

It seems to me that the question of having an agent before you get a publishing contract is weighing on many of our minds lately. Let’s face it, some of us have become so enamored of the battle cry, “You must have an agent to get published!” that it is bordering on becoming one of the Ten Commandments.

I’m afraid I’ll have to call BS on that one. Yes, it is a good idea to have an agent, but if we honestly believe that we have to have one before we can even think of getting published; then how did all those other folks get published without one?

Steven King worked without an agent for three years after Carrie was published, and J.K. Rowling didn’t get an agent until after the first Harry Potter story―which she self-published―began to sell big. So, where did having an agent first factor into the two biggest names in writing getting published? That’s right… it didn’t.

I’m not certain exactly when, “Publish, or perish,” turned into, “Agent, or perish.” But, I do know that it is one of the biggest lies in this crazy business of ours. If either The King, or Ms. Rowling had bought into that lie, Steve would still be teaching High School English class, and Ms. Rowling would still be waiting tables.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have an agent. Having an agent is one of the best things a writer can do. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you don’t have an agent―well, let’s just say you’ll deserve the screwing you’ll eventually get.

My problem lies with the fact that so many of us have bought into the lie. I have actually noticed aspiring authors ready to commit literary suicide over the fact that they couldn’t get an agent first. They honestly believe that if they can’t land an agent, their dream of being a writer is over. They believe that they must be a horrible writer if an agent isn’t willing to take them on as a client, and they should just quit.

I’ll admit that it is a very good thing to have an agent first, but with more an more agents ‘cherry picking’, this is just not as practical an option as it used to be. When added to the increasing number of writers who ‘found an agent’ after they had a publishing contract in hand, it should be pretty obvious that the old agent first fallacy is falling down like a house of cards in an earthquake.

Plain and simple, brothers and sisters, this is a t-o-u-g-h business. And if you are pinning all your hopes on acquiring an agent first, you are cutting your chances of ever getting published to the proverbial bone.

Yes, submitting to a publisher who accepts unsolicited/unagented material is a slower, and sometimes more ego crushing process. In short, you better bring your A-game. However, if you’re not getting any interest from an agent in the first place―Whaddya got to lose? And I’m not even going to go into the self-publishing/e-publishing arena. But it seems to me that if any of us are really serious about making it in this business, the last thing we would want to do is slam the door in the face of any opportunity to become a successful author.

One thing I can guarantee, gang: If you go into a fight with one hand tied behind your back, the odds are you’re going to get your tail whipped.

The other thing I can guarantee is: If you happen to take any legitimate opportunity to get published, and start making a name for yourself among the only people who really matter―the readers―both agents and publishers will be beating on your door with both fists.

How you got there isn’t nearly as important as actually getting there. No one will care how you snuck into the spotlight, so why cut off possible lifelines when you’re drowning anyway? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Later, Gang. 😉

Contrivance and Connivance

Recently I’ve been working my way through my writer’s library. It’s something I do often, as I don’t trust memory any more than I do computers. Both have a tendency to screw up at the worst possible moment, and I suspect both were, at least in part, designed by Mr. Murphy to accommodate his laws.

As a result I tend to forget lessons read through once or twice, and commit the same faux pas I kicked myself in the rear for the last time I did them.

Here is one, taken from Alice Orr’s No More Rejections, which I think many Speculative Fiction writers tend to forget and do from time to time. I know I do, but not as often as I use to:

“If you always begin with character in situation rather than the other way around, You should never end up with a plot that has the feeling of being rigged to fit the author’s story needs. The editorial ear and eye are tuned to detecting that sort of thing. Your manuscript will come sailing back at you like a missile aimed point-blank at your publishing career. Never have your character behave in behest of your story needs rather than out of that character’s own nature and natural motivation… Plot must emerge from character. That’s the rule. Break it at your own peril.”

~Alice Orr; No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells

The only part I omitted in the above was her suggestion to return to the Writing Characters From the Inside Out exercise in her book. Since it’s too long to include in this blog, it’s not much help to you. But, perhaps I can explain a little.

Every so often we get so caught up in our plots, and their twists, that we have a habit of forgetting exactly how our characters would really behave in a given situation. However, since we really, really need our character to perform a certain action to move our plot forward, we jerk their strings like the puppet they are and make them do it anyway. Maybe it’s for the sake of prose, maybe it’s to get that marvelous description we worked soooo hard for down just right, maybe it’s because we can’t think of another way to get the story from point A to point B. Regardless of the reason, we trim the edges off that square peg and force it into the round hole, and consequently make the character to take a backseat to story.

Sounds a bit like we murdered the character to save the darling, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s because we have.

One of the biggest reasons we do this, besides trying to save our darlings, is that we often do not know our characters as well as we think we do. Oh sure, we know their vital statistics. We know their names, the color of their hair, the shape of their bodies, and probably where they were born, but we do not know their hearts. We do not know them as a living breathing person, (Even though they aren’t.), and if we don’t know them as a living entity, how can we expect the reader, agent, or editor to know them as such? If they don’t truly live for us, odds are they won’t for that group either. In short, if we treat them like a puppet, that is how the agent, editor, and worse, the reader will see them.

As hard as it is for us to get an empathy built up for our characters and convince the reader on some level that these are real people in real situations, I doubt we can achieve that if we bend them into any shape we like for the sake of story. Even if it is just a temporary thing to move the story forward.

For our stories to live, our characters must live and act in accordance with the nature we gave them. I think that is the gist of Alice’s advice. And that means all of our characters, not just the main ones.

Later, Gang!

Make The Damn Thing Up

I’ve probably confused the dickens out of my fellow speculative fiction writers with that title. Perhaps the rest of you as well. It does seem a bit redundant since, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Are we not making up stories?

Fortunately, I’m not talking about stories. I’m talking about words. You’d be surprised to find out how many words we take for granted that were actually made up by writers who didn’t have a word for what they wanted to say. Some, I suspect, did it just for the hellabit to see if they could get away with leaving an indelible mark on the language, if not on literature.

For example: The word Robot did not exist before 1921, when Czech playwright Karl Capek created it from the Czech root word for work and used it in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Utopia was invented in 1516 by Sir Thomas More for his novel of the same name. It is a pun on a Latin word which means both ‘good place’ and ‘no place.’

Children’s author Lewis Carroll invented the words chortle, smog, brunch, and breathalyzer.

Some fans of Willie Shakespeare claim that he has added around 10,000 words to the language which never existed before he made them up. These include: hobnob, alligator, assassination, bump, eventful, and lonely. Some detractors say that the words were probably already used in the spoken language and he just wrote them down in his plays. Funny thing, though; no one else thought to do it before he did, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only playwright of his time.

Now before you begin to think that all these common words gained their stationalization simply because they are old, consider this:

The word factiod did not exist before 1973, when Norman Mailer made it up to mean a fact which did not exsist before it appeared in a newspaper, or magazine. The meaning has changed somewhat since. (And, no, you young smartalecs out there. 1973 is NOT that old!)

So, what’s the point to all of this?

Every so often a writer will use a word that is either obscure, or they made up for a purpose. Outside of Sci-Fi, and Fantasy ─where words and names are made up with the blistering speed of a lightningbat─ some well-meaning beta reader, editor, or critic is bound to call you on it. Sometimes even when you’ve made it pretty clear what the word is supposed to mean.

Take heart. If the word is obscure, they are simply showing that they don’t know as much as you do, and were too darn lazy to Google it. If you made it up and pretty much explained it through context, or comparison; you can be reasonably certain they are not actually reading your story, they are skimming through it.

That, or you have yet another victim of the Elvin Woodhead Speed Readin’ course.

In the end, who knows? You may not have a novel that will stand through the coming centuries, but you may have permanently altered the language as we know it. Then the folks at Webster will have to include your word in all their future editions.

How’s that for immortaletablity? footballer pictures

Later Gang! scuba diving in menorca

Everyone’s a Critic

“The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” ~ John Steinbeck

I thought it would be appropriate leading off this jumble of ramblings with a quote, since I’ll be using a few for illustration purposes as we go on. Particularly since I thought we could take a look at the bane of the writer’s existence, (especially speculative fiction writers), criticism.

Most writers are not immune to that baneful bug, in fact; none of us are. The disease as caused flame wars before the computer existed, and suicides before the media decided it was a popular method of inspiring sympathy for a just cause. But maybe, with a little perspective, we can take a bit of the sting out of the sharpened tongues which haunt our collective nightmares.

While, as per the above quote, there is no guarantee that our work will inspire hordes of readers to pour cash into our pockets; erect statues in our honor; name libraries after us; nor insist that our boring, out-of-date works be essayed in high school English classes throughout the country, the taking of a single criticism to heart is as silly as the fear of the dust bunnies under the bed. (Especially so if the source of the criticism is “a professional.”)

Consider these criticisms, and who they were directed to:

“As a work of art, it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks.” ~ Clive James on Judith Krantz’s The Princess Diaries.

“Virgina Woolfe’s writing is no more than glamorous knitting. I believe she must have a pattern somewhere.” ~ Dame Edith Sitwell.

“Henry James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” ~ T.S. Eliot

“Of Dickens’ style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules… No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens.” ~ Anthony Trollope

Did you notice that some of that criticism came from equally famous writers? People who would be considered “a professional?” Didn’t seem to make the writer they directed it at vanish into literary oblivion, did it? It may have, if the writer it was directed at took it to heart and acted on it, but, obviously they didn’t.

Given this, how much worse is it to take the critique of someone whose only claim to literary fame is being a professional critic? Have they ever produced a best seller? A hit movie? A Top Ten song? Not to my knowledge they haven’t. So, before you take the word of these “experts” to heart, consider the source.

Now, I’m NOT saying that all criticism is bad. It can inspire, show you where you need to tighten things up, and where you may have screwed up royally. We do know when a critique is right, because we’ll usually say, “Damn, I missed that.” But taking it to heart is probably the most counter productive thing a writer, or any artist for that matter, can do.

As Danielle Steele said:

“A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

Again, referring to my opening quote; no one in this business knows what will capture the public’s imagination, and what won’t. The business of speculative fiction is something of a lottery; and getting pissed off, or depressed at someone who’s opinion shouldn’t matter one whit is just plain silly. At least not if you’ve put in the work, and done the best you can.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”

So roll those bones, bust your anus, take your chances, and pan the critics. After all:

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” ~ Mark Twain

Later Gang!

Pete