Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What you wish you had known...

Maven Carrie RyanTonight I'm giving my first ever talk to a group of writers.  To be fair, I'm a last minute substitute and I'm talking to a very small group.  We're all both writers and member of the local bar (i.e. lawyers) and I wasn't given a topic.  We're all in very different stages with different goals -- some have been published in short fiction, some poetry, some are writing non-fiction and historical.  And so I've had a hard time trying to figure out what to focus on in my talk. 

Many of them aren't ready to worry about how to find agents and the ins/outs of submissions.  And my path to publication with a YA novel will be different from someone writing poetry or nonfiction.  It's been a really wonderful exercise trying to figure out what to talk about because it's made me realize just how much I've learned about this business over the years.  But it's also made me wonder -- how much do you need to know?  I spend a fair amount of time reading blogs, industry sites, books.  I check out message boards and talk to other writers.  That's the kind of person I am (and I know it often drives my friends crazy): when I'm faced with something I don't know, I research the heck out of it.

But there are other people I meet who didn't bother with any of that.  They wrote their books without paying attention to markets and trends.  They found agents by looking a few up online and submitting.  They don't pay much attention to industry gossip and forums and blogs about which agents prefer what.

I feel like there's so much information out there that's so readily available that it makes me wonder how people ever made it in publishing before the internet and chat rooms and blogs!  But they did.  At the same time, I've heard anecdotally that the internet has raised the bar for agents and editors: they have less tolerance for those who don't know how to write a query or format a manuscript because such information is so readily available.

So it's made me wonder (a) what I can share with this group that they can't find/haven't found out on their own pretty easily and (b) whether anything I have to say will be useful or helpful.  Because there are no rules in this business and mine is just one story out of thousands -- it should be taken in the context of all those other stories.  But then I remember that we're all writers (and lawyers which makes us analytical) so we enjoy sharing stories.  Hopefully that will be enough!  Also, hopefully they'll have a lot of questions :)  And just in case they don't... I'm turning to y'all for help!

So if you were just starting out in writing, what questions would you have?  What would you want to hear a soon-to-have-a-book-on-the-shelf author to talk about?


Diana Peterfreund said...

Honestly, there are certain things that you think everyone knows, but can never ever EVER be said too many times. I am surprised at how often I run into people whom I have reason to believe are very industry savvy (spend a lot of time on industry-savvy websites, attend conferences, etc.) who seem to have missed a few basics like:

1. never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever pay an agent. Ever.

2. the mark of a good agent is their ability to sell projects to a variety of different publishers on more than one level (i.e., not just one publisher, boiler plate debut novel contract). It is NOT: how quick/detailed their rejection letters are, how pretty their websites are, how many conferences they attend, if they have blogs, etc.

3. No, not all writers are millionaires.

4. You have to have a book to sell a book.

It never hurts to make sure people know these things.

When I was a beginning writer, I soaked up all this information. Even if it wasn't important to me before I actually had a book, I wanted to know how the process worked. Otherwise, how do you know if you even want to be a part of it?

Darcy Burke said...

Great topic, Carrie. I was at a BBQ at my step-brother's the other night and met one of his neighbors, an older guy who paints (still had on his smock, very cute) and writes poetry. My husband was chatting with him and told him about my writing and suddenly painter-poetry guy had 20 questions. Obviously I'm not very up on poetry submissions, but I did share my experiences which he found very helpful.

You'll do great tonight!!

Carrie Ryan said...

Thanks Darcy! I figure a lot of it is just answering questions.

And great ideas Diana -- always good to remember.

Erica Ridley said...

I would also stress not paying too much attention to the outliers. As soon as you say, "Finish the book before you query" or any other piece of advice, someone will say, "But I know somebody who..." and while they may be totally correct, newbie writers can´t count on being the exception to the rule. It's so dreamy to think you'll be the one to write the 600k head-hopping futuristic chick lit yarn club mystery and have it sell for millions (and movie options) on proposal, and maybe that's even happened to somebody out there, but this is really an industry where it's best to have realistic expectations of both yourself and the major players therein, so that you don't end up throwing yourself on the nearest machete in frustration/jealousy/depression.

Also that no two writers are the same and the only thing you'll gain from comparing your career (or lack thereof) to anyone else's is a complex and/or mental breakdown. Just do the best you can do and keep moving forward with as much efficiency and enthusiasm as you can, and don't think of it as a race or a competition because so much of it is outside of your control. Concentrate on what is.

(Somewhere in there I went from speaking to Carrie to speaking to Carrie's audience... I'm too lazy to go back and reword my post, though, so...)

Jackie Barbosa said...

Dang it, I tried to comment yesterday, but Blogger apparently ate it!

I hope your talk went well, Carrie, although I'm sure it did. I honestly don't think there is any writer alive (aspiring or published, fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry) who doesn't love to hear about another writer's path to success.

As to what I wish I had known before I started, that's tough. I feel like I still know so little, you know. I think Diana's spot on with her basics (especially the never pay an agent, bit) and I think Erica's right that it's important to have SOME sense of the market's boundaries (genres, book lengths, monetary expectations, etc.).

But mostly, what I wish I'd known when I got started is how amazingly supportive and friendly most other writers are. To this day, I'm often hesistant to approach another writer (particularly a successful, published author) for advice or assistance because I fear seeming pushy or presumptuous. But every time I've gotten the nerve to do it, I've found the person I'm "bugging" was both genuinely helpful and genuinely pleased that I'd asked for her help or guidance in the first place.

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