Monday, February 8, 2010

Know Your Audience, Follow Publishing Guidelines

So I found out yesterday that I have to resubmit my MFA thesis with a different set of stories.  Now, before you worry, I have enough workshopped material for three more theses, so it's just a matter of picking a better set of stories.  Actually, I'm glad in a way - the material I submitted before wasn't my favorite.  But the fact that I need to resubmit shows the importance of paying close attention to submission guidelines.

According to common mythology, submission guidelines are more of a roadblock than anything else.  There is a kind of sacred merit for artistic work.  In books, movies, and conversation, we sometimes hear individuals speak of "being true to the art" as opposed to "giving in to fame" or, worse yet, "falling prey to lawyers and editors."
(At least, this is how I remember things growing up.  It's actually been a while since I've heard anyone voice this opinion.  It's possible that the economy has finally beaten the spine out of the writing community...)

However, regardless of artistic merit, any work you wish to sell must find a "home" in the publishing world.  And this can be difficult.  Or nearly impossible.  So here are some tips from a barely published writer:

1.  Guidelines, Guidelines, Guidelines
When you're sending in unsolicited work, read and follow the guidelines given by the agent or publisher.  If they ask for a two-page synopsis, don't send a twenty-page excerpt.

Now there's a bit of psychology behind why people often ignore this one.  As writers, we each like to think "I'm different.  My work is special."  And these facts are both true - all writers are different, and all stories are special.  But no one is so special that they can earn respect by ignoring simple directions.
2.  Politeness Pays
Imagine this scene: you are a thesis adviser.  One of your students has just turned in sixty pages of thesis that won't make it past the department chair.  You have to tell your student this and hope that new material can be found and submitted in time for the deadline.  Do you really have time for an argument?

Answer?  Of course not.  Now I'm not saying that writers should become "yes-men" to editors and publishers, but we need to be open to the bad news as well as the good.  Sometimes the truth hurts, and the reality pill seldom goes down easy.  But we all like to work with people who are able to adapt to change and then respond with a smile - publishers, editors, and thesis advisers are no exception.  And it's easy to forget, but our editors almost always have our best interests at heart.  My thesis adviser would very much like to see me earn my MFA - an not just graduate, but to really succeed in the program.  Agents and publishers want your books to do well - if they could write better books themselves, they would.  Instead they look for writers they can work with.

This is why early politeness and respect is so critical to being published.  Agents and editors have no idea how you'll respond to news along the lines of "fifty-seven publishers rejected your novel" or "this second half of the book?  You need to rewrite it."  But they do know that they will need to break such news to writers from time to time.  So they'll pay attention to how you react to the little things.  Something like "I'm sorry, I have to reschedule our meeting" shouldn't be met with "What?  You're my agent!  Without my book you'd be out of the job!"  Besides showing a lack of courtesy, such a response sends the message that you aren't open to change - and people who aren't open to change tend to ignore their reading public...

3.  Know Your Audience
Have you ever heard the phrase "they don't know what they should like"?  Or something along the lines of "readers just don't know anything about good writing"?  It's rare to find an author who shows such blatant disregard for his or her readers, but many authors ignore their audience in more subtle ways - and these subtle ways can be just as damaging to your popularity.
First, if someone criticizes your work, listen to what they're saying.  For example, I turned in a story to workshop last week which had the term "EMP."  Now for me, a lover of science fiction, "EMP" is short for Electromagnetic Pulse.  It's the reason Tom Cruise has to steal a mini-van after the aliens show up in War of the Worlds - it's the only car on the block that's been to the shop for a new starter.  But most of my classmates - lovers of more traditional literature - didn't know what EMP was.  And it's good now that I know - in future stories, I'll make sure to reveal what EMP is rather than assume that everyone will already know what it does.

And this is good.  It shows me an important weakness in my own writing - I tend to assume my readers already know the facts that I take for granted.  And I'll take this information to go back and write a better story.  Which brings us to...

4.  Always Write the Best Work You Can
Personally, I hate reading novels that are poorly written.  I hate it even more when a good author - a renowned author whose books I've enjoyed in the past - publishes a $24 hardcover that reads like plotless swill.  And there's a reason that book ended up on the discount racks, and there's a reason I'm still upset that I wasted six bucks to own it.  It weighs two pounds and I can't even finish reading it.  I would send it to Haiti for firewood if it was worth the postage.  (Wait, did I just promote the burning of books?  It's only because that six bucks could have bought me an iced green-tea latte with change left over.)

Nothing will turn off a reader - or a publisher - like badly written prose.  Never assume that prior success means your new books is "good enough."  The goal should always be to write a better story, to give your audience something new and improved.  And this is especially important for new writers.  If you write a story that does well in workshop, try to write a better story that will get published.  Once you're published, try to write one still better that will receive critical acclaim.  Just because that last group of readers liked your story doesn't mean any one of them would trade in a green tea latte to buy it.  And if you're going hardcover, we're talking about convincing a lot of people to give up a whole lotta lattes...

5.  Never, Never, Never Give Up
There comes a point when every writer must ask the following: "Is this my life?  Can I make a living doing this?"  Most writers, actually, must ask this question at least once every three or four months, depending on the alignment of paychecks and rent checks.

So let me tell you a little secret: you don't need to make your living as a writer.  Not today, you don't.  Working at Starbucks?  Take your complimentary green tea latte back to the keyboard.  Working as a lawyer?  Remember John Grisham.  Stuck doing laundry on your lunch break from the factory?  That didn't stop Stephen King.

Except for Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon), pretty much every published writer has held a full-time job that had nothing at all to do with writing.  I'm working on my MFA now, but before this I've worked summer jobs in medical records, spent five years in the Army, spent another six months as a bartender, and held more campus jobs than I can count.  And every time I walk into Chipotle or Starbucks, I check out their latest Help Wanted sign.  (You never know when you're gonna need a job that offers a free green tea latte with your burrito.)

Never mind that there are the English majors who don't need to earn extra money for college, or that some of them go on to grad school and then go on to teaching part time.  Sure, you might say their lives revolve around creative writing.  But they still need to publish.  They still face the same hurdles that we all face - they take those teaching jobs to pay the bills, and those jobs never pay well.  There's always another MFA grad just waiting to step in whenever someone finally gives in and moves back home.  And publishers won't publish a book because of an MFA degree from Iowa - they'll publish a book because it's good.  They might be more likely to read a manuscript from an MFA grad, but that's little more than a foot in the door.  (And no, it won't help to mail a prospective publisher a green tea latte - those things don't mail well anyway.)

So don't give up.  Keep writing.  Those black thoughts of tossing your computer out the window will pass.  Know that publication is not the most important thing in the world.  Even if you never publish a word, you can still be a very successful writer.  You can encourage your children to write.  You can run workshops at the local library.  You can even start your own website.  And always, always, always keep writing.  The "overnight success" in the publishing world usually takes ten to fifteen years hunched over the keyboard without an advance.  No, there are no guarantees in the publishing world, except this one: those who give up today cannot publish tomorrow.

No comments: