I have two quotes hanging on the wall behind my desk to remind me why I do this complicated writing thing when there are so many other, easier ways to make a living (like washing skyscraper windows, for example. Or training bobcats to swim…)
The venerable C.S. Lewis warns, “In every department of life [is] the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.” The most helpful thing about this quote is not Lewis’ acknowledgement of the labor, but how he invites me to face this unavoidable transition. Sometimes this goes better than others, and it helps me to recognize that I cannot get over or around this obstacle. The only way through is through, so I might as well get typing.
Which brings me to quote #2: In my less graceful transitions, I’m inspired by these words from Jeff Heidkamp: “You keep on…not because you’re so great, but because the terms of the game aren’t set by your limitations.” Jeff was blogging about leadership when he wrote this, but I think it applies to everything we try. Especially if you’re a spiritual sort, it’s extraordinarily helpful to remember that we’re not the one calling the shots.
This is, perhaps, the best mindset I’ve found for writing: the idea that our job is to navigate the transition from dreaming to doing, and trust the results to a power greater than ourselves. Kind of mystical, I know. But anyone who has been in this business for more than fifteen minutes knows that there’s no earthly way to predict which project will be a bestseller, and which will end up in the remainder bin. There’s only so much we can do. Which means, of course, it’s doubly important to do our part.
THOUGHTS ON DOING OUR PART
As you may have guessed, my main encouragement is to WRITE: whenever, wherever, on Post-it notes, napkins, journals, odd pieces of paper dug up from the bottom of your backpack…you’ll be amazed by how much work you can accumulate if you capture ideas as they wander by.
Second: Be teachable. Accept criticism, and adapt your writing style when necessary. Two of my best editors – one a second year associate at the first law firm I worked for, the other the editor who acquired my first book – ripped my sentences to shreds, page after page. But they were right. When I put my ego aside and considered their suggestions, they captured what I wanted to say, only with a stronger structure supporting it. It’s an honor to have a better writer contribute his or her skills to your work. Don’t waste it.
After craft comes business. It’s important to understand that publishing is a business. This has benefits and drawbacks, but at the end of the day it means this: there is a system, and we can learn how to operate within it. (And should you decide to wander off to blaze your own trail, it helps to have a clear sense of how people got from A to Z before you arrived on the scene.) Read books and blogs. Follow agents and editors on social media and listen (or, I guess, read) more than you speak. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace and see who is selling what, and to whom. Look at the publishing world as a puzzle and ask: Where do I fit in?
TIPS ON THE TECHNICALITIES
1. Learn how to write a good query letter. Here’s a post to get you started.
2. Research agents and only contact those who represent the kind of project you have. I foudn my agent, the brave and brilliant Elisabeth Weed, on the website of The Muse and the Marketplace, a great writers conference here in Boston. The “a-ha” moment came when I read her bio and realized I had a book she represented on my nightstand. My memoir had similar themes (woman looking for love) which I mentioned in my query. This not only helped her sort my email from hundreds of others, it showed that I wasn’t just blasting out a giant spam campaign to every agent I could find on the web.
3. If you’re a novelist, finish your manuscript before you query. Don’t fudge on this – if an agent requests “a full,” you don’t want to pull an all nighter trying to write the second half of your book.
If you’re a memoirists or writing other non-fiction, things are more in flux. Some agents like to see the completed manuscript, others prefer a book proposal, as that’s the sales tool for shopping the project to editors. (If you’d like a copy of my nonfiction book proposal outline, send me an email.)
The bottom line: Stories matter. If you have one to tell, it’s worth the effort.
Need more encouragement? I wrote this for my college magazine about how learning ballet at age 19 gave me the courage to become a writer fifteen years later. The embarrassing dance picture alone is worth the click :)