This is definitely a strange business, and if I knew when I started what I know now, I would've approached this thing differently. What's done is done, but I can't help wondering if there aren't people wandering around in the same haze who could use a little wisdom. I know I could've.
For instance, there are several places where the advice seems logical enough to the neophyte, but in practice just hurts your chances. Like the advice to compare your work to other writers in your query letter. Supposedly this is to show that you know the market and you know where your books ought to be placed on a shelf. What they neglect to tell you, though, is that comparing your work to the big names (i.e. King, Grisham, Hemingway, etc.) is almost an auto-NO. It comes off as pretentious (or so I've heard), and since no one writes exactly the same as anyone else, telling an agent you write like Stephen King is just wrong. I guess there's a way to balance who you think you write like without coming off like a pompous ass, but I haven't figured it out yet. So I just leave it off.
Or the advice to write your query letters in a business-like manner, which is at odds with the advice to not write your query letters like a business letter. I think what they're going for here is a level of professionalism in a query letter. Make sure you're not coming off too casual, and also not too stiff. Work on sounding like a professional writer without sounding like a secretary (which was difficult for me, since I was a secretary).
But beyond those pieces of advice (and others like them), there are things they just don't tell you. Or things you just don't want to see right now. Just to give you a few things I've learned:
- Writing the books is not the hard part. I know it may seem like the hard part, especially when it's your first and you're wondering if you'll ever be able to finish it, but it's not. The hard parts begin after you write THE END.
- Learn everything you can learn about the industry BEFORE you send your first query letter. Don't think just because you looked at few sample letters and read a couple of what seemed like spot-on directions for writing query letters that your letter is good. I thought I'd done everything right, and looking back now, I see my first query letters were horrific.
- Don't assume this business is like any other business you've ever experienced before. It's not. The writing industry isn't like anything I've ever encountered, and I've worked in a lot of different professions.
- Don't assume because you heard about some writer who got their book contract bing-bang-boom, and had their book on the shelves lickedy-split, that it's going to happen for you. For the most part, this is a long, slow process. The book you finished today - even if you get an agent tomorrow - won't get a contract for a few months and won't be published for about a year after that.
- Rejections suck, but they are all a part of this process. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone who never got a single rejection. The first agent is probably not going to snatch you up, and the first publisher is probably not going to squeal with glee over your masterpiece. If you're lucky the rejection numbers will be low before you get your YES, but don't hold your breath.
- Not everyone is going to like your writing. Get over it. I remember the day when one of my friends first told me she didn't like one of my books. Everyone else liked it, but something about it didn't sit right with her. Stuff happens. She's still my friend and appreciated her honesty. Not that it didn't sting to hear it, but as a writer you need to hear the bad stuff along with the good.
- Most writers and agents and other advice-givers are good people, but there are a few snerts out there. Do your best to avoid them, and if you do run across one, try to ignore them. Of course, they may be disguised as someone who is genuinely trying to help, but if you don't like their advice and go your own way, they'll show themselves for who they are. If it gets to that, try to weather through, and go find yourself some nicer people to talk to.
- As I've said before, most rules can be bent, but you have to know what the rule is before you can bend it, and you have to have a logical reason for bending it even then.
- And as I've also said before, take any advice you receive with a grain of salt (including mine). Use it only as it pertains to your writing and your idea of what your book ought to be. Not everything works for every writer, and none of our processes are exactly the same. No matter what happens, you have to be true to yourself.
Any advice my fellow old-timers have for the neophytes who might be reading along today? What are some things you've learned that you wish you knew back when you started?
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