The Eminently Practical, Hardly Revolutionary, but Nonetheless Still Useful Guide to One Author’s Tools and Techniques for Effective Writing

And now back to your regularly-scheduled programming…

This is your basic nuts-and-bolts “tips and tricks” post – or at least what passes for such when I write one.  Nothing fancy, no deep insights, no self-amused sarcasm (okay, who am I kidding with that last one?); just the tools and techniques I recommend for effective writing.

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The typical writer’s toolbox is as cluttered, messy, and well used as the one above.  (And for the record, it is never a good sign when you find yourself reaching for the pall peen hammer…)

“Tools and techniques?” I hear the non-authors in the audience asking, “what do you mean ‘tools and techniques’?  You just sit down at the keyboard and type!  What more is there to writing than that?”  Well, uh, in point of fact, quite a lot.  Certainly, the actual act of producing a manuscript is as simple as hunching over a keyboard and plunging your fingers down into the keys, one after the other, but there is significantly more that goes into producing (quality) prose than simply dropping words onto a page (hence, by the way, the mildly ironic title of this blog); crafting a good tale is hard work – or at least it always has been for me, and for the vast majority of other writers I’ve ever seen discuss the subject at any length.  (And if it happens to come effortlessly to you, then a) I am confused as to why you are still reading this post, and b) you have my warmest invitation to go take a long walk off a short pier.)  Fortunately for most of us, it’s a labor of love, one we undertake willingly – and those of us who spend enough time at it invariably discover a number of tactics and resources that make the process easier.  These are mine.

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A Brief Detour Into Politics…

As I mentioned when first starting this blog, I intend to use this space primarily as a venue for the discussion of my work, the writing process, and the publishing industry at large – but I did also warn you that occasionally I would venture off course into topics like politics and world events.  This is one such post.  (Sorry!)  In light of yesterday’s results in FL, NC, OH, IL, and MO, I find myself prompted to share some commentary on the presidential primaries here in the United States.  I think it offers some important perspective for those of us who lean left – and as for everyone else… well, I’ll have more on high fantasy and how I pursue my writing shortly, I promise.

As any of you who follow me on Twitter know, my politics are fairly progressive, and consequently, as you might imagine, I am somewhat disappointed with the results last night (though I understand why Ohio Independents and Democrats who crossed over voted the way that they did).  In my opinion a Clinton nomination is now a foregone conclusion.  Even so, I believe the primary process continues to be vitally important this election cycle, and though I am discouraged that it appears my candidate will not win, I am determined to continue to remain engaged until the end.  So, in keeping with this position – and in light of the newly clarified lay of the land – I offer a couple of thoughts on the journey that is to follow over the next eight months:

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Every Writer’s Least Favorite Subject: Querying

And now for the post I wish I could have stumbled across on someone else’s blog some time early last fall:

Here, for your convenience, in one single, centralized location, I have gathered everything I learned over the three months (two in preparation, one in actual outreach) that I invested in seeking representation.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I can now happily say that I am one of the fortunate ones, having recently signed with a literary agent, and while luck no doubt played its role – so, I sincerely hope, did the quality of my work – none of it would have mattered if I hadn’t figured out whom to contact, and how to go about it. That is what this entry is about.  For those of you who are not writers yourselves, this may seem like something of a boring topic (unless of course you are the tinkering type who likes to understand how things work, in which case it may be of interest, and may even provide useful analogs to your own vocation/avocation), but for any aspiring authors in the audience… trust me, this piece may be a bit long, but it’s one you definitely want to read.

Before I discuss the hows of the process, however, let’s take a brief moment to talk about the whens.  At what point is it time to start looking for a literary agent?  The harsh truth of the matter is that if you’re a first-time novelist like myself, you shouldn’t even think about contacting agents until you have produced a finished manuscript.  And when I say that,

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Where a novelist should be before commencing the querying process.  (By the way, I hope you don’t mind the repeated use of this graphic – just so you’re aware, given how long it took me to make the darn thing, I will be getting my money’s worth out of it…)

I mean a polished, beta-read, proofread, good-as-you-can-make-it, final draft of a book – no ifs, ands or buts.  To any of you who may be just starting out, this may sound like a bit of an undertaking.  And I hate to break it to you, but… it is.  If you don’t feel a true pull to begin working on a manuscript simply for its own sake, you should probably reconsider the idea.  Writing a novel is a long and arduous exercise even when you love the craft, and there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll receive any kind of reward at the end; as a consequence, if you don’t have a story inside bursting to come out, my advice is that you hold off on sitting down at the keyboard until you do.

Ah, but you are a fellow soul afflicted with that irresistible need, you say!

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One Hurdle Cleared

Today is a big day.  It follows a big email last Wednesday, a big meeting over cocktails Monday evening,* and a big exchange of correspondence regarding a draft agreement yesterday afternoon.  And then, just a few minutes ago…

I received a countersigned contract from Matt Bialer of Greenburger Associates!

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It may not look like much (hey, my scanner is on its last legs), but it means a lot to me.

Greenburger (officially known as Sanford J. Greenburger & Associates) is one of the more storied literary agencies in the business, with long-time roots in the practice of editorial scouting (bringing European clients such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Franz Kafka to the United States), and a roster today that boasts some of the most popular authors in publication.  More importantly (to me anyway), the firm, and Matt in particular, represents some of those I consider to be the very best fantasy novelists currently writing, including one of my early influences, Tad Williams, and perennial bestseller, Patrick Rothfuss.  Oh, and as an added bonus, based on my dealings with Matt so far, he also appears to be one heck of a nice guy.

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The Good Guys (and Gals)

Happy Cowpoke Couple
The majority of literary agents wear white hats.  (Unless, of course, they’re wearing white vests; that would be tacky.)

Earlier this week I introduced the subject of literary agents and, more specifically, my initial experiences with them – to wit, my first four rejection notices.  I did my best to present an even-handed view, but given that I provided fairly frank analyses of those that I thought were less than well done, it occurs to me that my post may have conveyed the sense that I regard the profession with some contempt.  I sincerely hope this is not the case.  In point of fact, I actually have the greatest respect for agents, as I know the daunting number of queries they receive on a daily basis, and I myself have been in the position of serving as an advocate for a stable full of clients, doing my best to help them sell their prized possessions, and serving as the day-to-day buffer between them and those on the other side of sometimes contentious transactions.  (Though I can only hope for the sake of literary agents everywhere that publishing negotiations are a lot less cut-throat, the work a lot more emotionally rewarding, and the people a lot nicer, than in M&A investment banking.)  Trust me, I appreciate how hard their work must be.

That said, it’s not surprising that the first handful of notices to come back included some that in my opinion were not as thoughtful as they could have been – after all, shoot from the hip and you’re liable to miss.  So, I offered criticism where I thought it was due.  Today, however, it is my pleasure to give you the flip side of the coin:  an absolutely wonderful interaction I had with another literary agent just a few days later.  This gentleman could not have been kinder, more complimentary, or more encouraging – and he too was sending me a rejection.

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Rejection

Okay, this is going to be a fun one.  In fact, to make certain everyone is in the right frame of mind as they read this post, I’ve even composed a little ditty to start us off [sung to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof]:

Rejection, rejection! Rejection!
Rejection, rejection! Rejection!

Who, after reading, is sad to say your work
Has not drawn her in as much as she had hoped?
And who, after careful review, is afraid
Your project is not a good fit?

The Agent, the Agent! Rejection.
The Agent, the Agent! Rejection.

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The well-known rule, and the only slightly less well-known rule. (With apologies to William Goldman’s character Vizzini.)

Unfortunately, rejection is a reality that almost every writer will have to face – and for most of us, it will come sooner rather than later.  J. K. Rowling famously was turned down 12 times before she found a publisher – or rather, a publisher’s offspring – that was sufficiently engrossed by her book to offer her a contract (though it should be pointed out she did get an agent on her second try), Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was turned down by literary agents 60 times over a period of three and a half years before she finally secured representation, and perhaps most startling of all, Beatrix Potter was so unsuccessful in marketing her work, she was forced to self-publish the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which subsequently went on to sell over 40 million copies (needless to say, she was able to get a publisher to take on the subsequent printings).  The internet is rife with such stories, and though this would be hard to prove,  I’m guessing that the list of bestsellers that were accepted on their first query – or even within their first ten – is far shorter than those that were not.  As a writer, you know this when you set out to get your novel published (or should, if you’ve done any research on the industry), and consequently when the first rejection notices start arriving in your inbox, they should not come as much of a surprise.

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Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

My first post was a somewhat lengthy discussion of why, after years away from the keyboard, I finally started to write again – and, because in my case the two subjects are inextricably linked, why I chose to explore the subject matter I did.  Intense, high-level, and deeply personal stuff.  Though I am only a few days into my quest to bring The Herald’s Dark Progress to market, I can already tell that over the coming months the journey will produce plenty of additional opportunities to share such observations.  When I first launched this blog, however, one of the promises I made (both to you and to myself) was that I would go beyond simply expressing my motivations for writing and reporting on my progress with the publishing industry; I would also use this space to discuss how I go about the craft.  Therefore, in keeping with that promise, I submit for your review post number two:  a piece explaining an early decision I made regarding the manuscript.  I hope it will be of some interest to all those of you who are also writers, or who are interested in the writing process (as for everyone else, you may want to wait for the next one – it will be a snark-filled doozy, I swear).

If you head over to my writing samples, you’ll see that I’ve uploaded something new:  the first version of the prologue to The Herald’s Dark Progress, “finalized” some time circa 2011.  It is old – and early – enough that I suspect even most of my beta readers won’t recognize it.  And for good reason:  it was in need of significant edits.

PrologueMarkup
The graphic above is a bit of artistic license; I don’t actually edit my work like this.  It was close, but in the end, I eventually decided to go with a faux-markup rather than the more authentic 15-minute clip of me staring silently at my laptop with my head in my hands.

But before I get to those changes and why they were required, let me reiterate the “author’s comment” above the excerpt:  you should know that this segment does contain some mild spoilers – in the form of background detail that I’ve subsequently moved further back in the narrative.  If you haven’t already completed the full novel, and want to be sure you experience it in its best form (or at least the way I intend for it to be experienced), you may want to hold off on reading any further until you’ve had a chance do that.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already read The Herald’s Dark Progress, or are more interested in my process than my work, or simply don’t mind a bit of a reveal, please continue.

Continue reading “Starting Off on the Wrong Foot”