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From the workshop by Karen Drogin aka Carly Phillips, Lori & Tony Karayianni aka Tori Carrington, and Harlequin Editor, Brenda Chin presented at the Romance Writers of America Conference, Chicago, 1999
Fall in, aspiring writers! Oh, no, we’re not talking physically. We’re talking brain here, not brawn, a kind of boot camp for the mind? Though we do recommend regular stretching of all muscles. As the paragraph title implies, this is where you need to brush up on the basics. Not sure if you remember the difference between a comma, a semi-colon or colon? Just what is an infinitive and why shouldn’t you split it? Do you think POV means privately-owned-vehicle? Is there a character in your head but you don’t know how to get him out? Does the word “synopsis” sound like little more than a fatal disease to you? (Okay, we can’t tell you learning how to write one will erase this gut reaction, but the effort will make hand-to-hand combat with one easier.) Must-read books that will help you answer these questions are: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict; and Elizabeth Sinclair’s The Dreaded Synopsis: A Writing and Plotting Guide. Read them.
This is where you prove you’re serious. To yourself. Any good soldier needs barracks and suitable supplies. No, we’re not talking a pickle suit or literal artillery here. You need a special place that’s yours and yours alone where you can nurture your artistic self. No matter if it’s a corner in your bedroom, attic, or even basement, or a cushy room with a view, set up a desk. Buy a secondhand or top-of-the-line computer and printer or typewriter (no dot matrix here, boys and girls). Invest in and learn that word processing program that will spit out format perfect material (1″ margins all the way around, with simple headers listing book title, author name and page number in the upper left hand corner, and easily readable print with approximately 25 lines per page). Invest in your own dictionary-of-choice, thesaurus, copies of the already mentioned books and put them where they’re within reach. Now comes the fun part. Go ahead, make your local office supply store your new best friend. Buy that multi-pack of yellow notepads you could never justify buying before. Choose those colorful paperclips. Invest in those cute post-it notes? You’ll need them. Stock your special place with all those supplies that will make concentrating strictly on writing easier. And just like any good soldier needs care packages, keep a stash of feel-good food (i.e. chocolate) where only you can find it.
Okay, you’re getting into fighting shape, but you’re not there yet. Now it’s time to scout out territory you’d like to conquer. Which publisher do you want to write for? Which series? Go out and buy books from that publisher/line. Revisit any “keepers” you have and analyze why they earned precious shelf space. Give due respect to established authors? In our own home line, Harlequin Temptation, nobody does it quite the same way as Vicki Lewis Thompson, Gina Wilkins and Kristine Rolofson? But we recommend paying special attention to the newer authors, namely Karen Drogin aka Carly Phillips and us as Tori Carrington, also Janelle Denison, Stephanie Bond, Julie Elizabeth Leto and Kimberly Raye, Leslie Kelly and Julie Kenner, because it’s from us and them you’ll see what the publisher is buying from new authors now. Note which themes are especially popular (right now books that have a combination of standard hooks are particularly tempting to publishers? In Temptation, forbidden themes, bride [runaway, kidnapped, amnesiac or otherwise] and baby books are in demand. Attend conferences, listen to and meet with editors to learn what they’re looking for.
Right about now you feel you’ll choke if made to swallow one more style rule, or piece of advice on how to write your book. Now it’s time to arm yourself. No, no, no, we’re not talking actual implements of war here. Your most effective weapon in this battle is your work. Push your research books aside and give yourself over completely to the process of writing. Completely. Do your character sketches. Outline your plot. Set a schedule for yourself, whether it be an hour or two before the kids get up, or the entire day, write, write, write. No weekend warriors allowed here. Devote every moment you can to writing that book through to the end. Trust that everything you’ve studied is there, in your subconscious, guiding you, and ignore the internal editor for the time being. Pound out the first draft till the very end. Call this battle “the book attack,” holding no prisoners, allowing for no excuses. This is where you prove you’re capable of finishing a book. Everyone works differently, so this exercise is not to compare yourself to others. No, it’s a process to get to know yourself as a writer. Only when you’ve finished can you go back and revise, revise, revise, polishing your baby until it coos and shines, tempting an editor to pick it up.
You’ve given it your absolute best. Nothing less will do. To prepare your book for outside eyes, send it out with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to an editor. If you’re so moved, also enter a contest(s). Karen will cover this in more detail, but the ultimate test of any manuscript is with an editor. Do your research, find out who the best editor is to approach, know what they want to see (do they want a query letter, sample chapters, synopsis?) then mail the same to her attention, addressing her by name. Include a self-addressed stamped postcard so the editor can let you know she’s received the material, and, worse case scenario, return your manuscript (dealing with a Canadian publisher? Send a check to cover return postage). Now, settle back in your foxhole to wait. That wait could take a year, or ten, and include countless manuscripts. In our case, it took twenty full manuscripts, five partials, and fifteen, yes I said fifteen, years before we could proudly walk out of that foxhole and call ourselves published authors.
Your Mission should you choose to accept it: Now that Tony and Lori have hit on basic training and prepared you for the battle to come, it’s my turn to take charge. To train you to how to break free from the ranks of the unpublished and let your work shine in front of your superiors. Like any good soldier, by this time you’ve followed the commands and have a completed manuscript to show for your trouble. Don’t scratch your head and wonder what comes next. The answer is simple. Tony and Lori just told you. SUBMIT.
Now that your submission is out there, in the hands of the brass. What do you do next? Retreat to your bunker. Hole up, sit yourself down in front of the computer and start over. Another manuscript, another story. Why, you ask? Why bother when you’ll hear in a few weeks time and be on your way to the New York Times Bestseller list? Your really are green, aren’t you? Publishing houses are backlogged, editors are inundated. Not only with manuscripts from the unpublished ranks, but with work from within the ranks as well. Brenda Chin has over twenty authors of her own. If a publishing houses guidelines offer a three month response time, figure six and use the lag time productively. Finish another book.
Why? Because … and this is my most important piece of advice? GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE. At this point you know the market. But does the market know you? Editors admire persistence, and after awhile they’ll begin to remember your name. The only way to make that first sale is to complete manuscript after manuscript until that call comes. With each rejection an editor remembers you. You move closer to being published. And it’s a real morale booster to have more than one submission with a different publisher. If one incoming is rejected, it helps to know there’s another one waiting to sell. So keep writing, and finishing. As an unpublished author, you can’t sell a manuscript unless it’s complete.
Even more than an editor admires persistence, they admire someone who learns from past experience. And that experience is ready to happen. You walk out to the mailbox, forgetting for a moment you’re engaged in battle. You relax, lose focus. And that’s when the first landmine blindsides you. An incoming missile slams you in the gut. There in your mailbox is the red white and blue priority envelope with your neat handwriting on it. Or the larger manilla envelope with the Harlequin Canada label. Your stomach plummets and you realize you’ve lost.
Take heart. Yes, a returned manuscript is a battle lost, but the war wages on. And a good soldier is ready, willing and able to regroup. The first step is to take stock. Assess the damage and see if there’s anything salvageable in the ruins. The best way to look at the letter in your hand is by line quantity. The less said, the worse your position. The more said, the further you’ve advanced in your battle plan. The editor is looking for publishable material.
If the letter in your hands mentions your characters by name or points out a flaw or flaws in your precious manuscript, it’s time for back-slapping, military hugs. Because you’ve crossed that first hurdle. You’ve given an editor something to criticize.
Wait a minute. This is a good thing? I know you’re wondering if that last landmine shattered something in my brain. But I haven’t lost my mind. If an editor takes the time to point out even one tiny flaw in your work, as a reason for passing on a particular story, you’ve accomplished a major objective. With hundreds of other soldiers fighting the same fight, you’ve relied on your prime weapon, your talent and unique voice, and captured an editor’s attention. Good job, soldier.
Even better is if an editor suggests you revise the work and resubmit. You’ve advanced higher in the ranks and you get that all important second chance to show what you can do. Be cautiously optimistic and be prepared to work harder than you have in your life. Be in for more emotional highs and lows than you thought were possible.
If you really want to sell, be flexible. Learn to listen. Hear what the editor wants. Hear what the problems are with your work. And accept them. It may be your work, but if you want to sell, you need to prove to an editor that you are willing to change your work vision to suit their vision of their publishing house or line.
But be prepared. Even if you’re the most flexible, reliable soldier, sometimes a year or more of revising and waiting will pass, only to discover this manuscript isn’t the one.
Then you are facing your worst enemy, a rejection. Scan down to the bottom of the page. If you check out the last paragraph and see “I’m sorry this story doesn’t work for me but I’d be happy to see more of your work,” don’t laugh it off and shove the letter in a drawer. Or worse, the trash can. Editors don’t say things they don’t mean.
For one thing, they don’t have the time. In many cases you’ve submitted to her umpteenth times before. In others, she’s logged in your work and recognizes your name. Regardless, though one book isn’t suitable for publication, the next one might be.
No one said it would come fast or easy. And if you thought it would, we’re here to correct you. In this business, as in life, there are no guarantees. Not even when the senior editor holds your manuscript in her hot little hands with a glowing recommendation to buy by the editor who you believe will make your dreams come true.
It doesn’t matter if this story doesn’t work for the editor. I see you scratching your heads out there. Isn’t that the point? To sell the book? Of course. But if you’ve received the incoming missile, dismantled it and send an even better submission back out there, you’ve shown an editor you’re someone she can work with.
Editors are professionals. They demand the same of their recruits. If selling is your objective, you’ve just learned an important combat rule. Be willing to revise. Because if an editor sees a difficult author, no matter how talented, you’ve shot yourself in the foot, soldier. And there’s nowhere to go but back underground.
It’s back to the bunker to regroup again. To revise that manuscript or complete the next one for submission. All in the name of the secondary goal. To GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE. So take a minute, take a deep breath, and … write that editor a thank you note. Yes, she said your baby is ugly or needs cosmetic surgery, and yes, she may have taken months and months to do it. But the point is, she did it. Consider the thank you note a major point in your campaign to sell. So sit down, write that note and let the editor know you’ll be submitting again in the future. Then sit down to write that next story.
At this point, you need to take a minute and revise your initial game plan. How is the battle progressing? Where are you going in your career? You need to step back and make financial decisions. Beyond submissions, there are other ways to further your objective. To GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE.
Conferences and contests can play an important role. They also cost money and you need to decide which, if any, are the most cost effective. Contests come in all shapes and sizes, the same as aspiring authors. The RWR lists all chapter conferences. Assess them according to your level of expertise.
In all cases, contests are a like a Kamikaze mission. You may soar with a win or crash and burn. They are a decision to invest money with no guaranteed return. You might learn more about your craft. You might interest an editor enough to request the full manuscript. And as Brenda will tell you, she’s found more than one potential author this way. But there’s no guarantee. A good soldier is trained in the art of developing a thick skin. You’ll need it for the battles ahead.
There never comes a time when you can sit back and rest on your contest wins or pin your hopes on the latest manuscript in the mail. If you do, the newest eager recruit will bypass you in an instant. This never changes, not even once you’ve made that first sale.
Which brings me to another point. The call. Jump up and down … scream, yell and call everyone you know. How you handle that first sale call is for another workshop. But this is as good a place as any for a reality check. Selling that first book isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. The beginning of a new career and new challenges. You’re no longer at the top of the unpublished food chain, among the ranks of the almost published. You’re published now and that’s a crowning achievement. But you’re at a new place, the bottom of the published food chain. And you will need every ounce of perseverance and determination you learned on the climb towards publication. You’ll need to keep your skills honed and your talent fresh. Because you’re in a new league now and you want to not only compete, but succeed.
While you’re still in the pre-sale stage though, there are a few more points I’d like to make. Just because you haven’t yet sold, doesn’t make you less of a writer. Military jargon and fun aside, there is no formula that will enable you to sell. There are no easy answers as to why some people make it and others don’t. I personally had ten completed manuscripts over six years before I sold one and that doesn’t include revisions.
The ups and downs I mentioned, been there, done that. Over those six years, I had manuscripts passed up to senior editors with recommendations to buy four times. Each time, the senior editor passed. As I said, nothing is guaranteed. Two weeks after I’d submitted a proposal to Brenda at Temptation, she called to see the rest.
Two weeks and a phone call to an unpublished writer! Isn’t that unheard of in publishing? She says now she remembered my name enough to pull my unrequested manuscript out of the slush pile and give it a look. Remember what I said? GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE. I believe in it. It works.
I didn’t sell that manuscript. But Brenda, the best editor out there, she’ll kill me for saying that because you’ll all probably flood her desk with submissions now, believed in me. She worked with me until I sold. Two and a half years after that first call. Two and a half years.
So continue to do everything you can to make your dream come true. And be proud of yourself. You’ve followed the rules and stuck it out when lesser writers have fallen by the wayside. And believe it or not, if you’ve been through everything we’ve discussed here today, the editors know it. They respect you for it. You’ve managed to stand above the other potential recruits. And the only thing left to do is keep up the good work.
With talent, perseverance and a little help from Lady Luck, your dream of being published can come true. Just don’t forget my best piece of advice. GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE. And Keep It There.