Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Writer Is Thankful—And Not Just for Her Book Contract Either

by Sophie Perinot

As Thanksgiving approaches (yeah, it’s the day after tomorrow so if you don’t have a turkey yet you’d better get moving) I’ve been spending a little time pondering what I am grateful for when I wear my writer’s hat.

Some things are pretty obvious. Like my book deal. This time last year I didn’t have my deal, and it represents the realization of a huge dream and a bit of validation (take that all you casual, social acquaintances who smirked when I said I was writing a novel and thought I was just some eccentric nut job) so when my family gives thanks around a table groaning with goodies I will be thankful for my deal. But I am also thankful for a number of things that might surprise you and that, I hope, will help you to view events along your personal writing road with new (slightly more grateful) eyes.

I am thankful that my first novel didn’t sell. Honestly, I am. Mind you I thought it was “shelf-worthy” and so did my agent, and when we had our last “near miss” with an editor I felt like the bottom fell out of my world. But, funny thing, I realize now that while it might make a brilliant “later work” it would have be a very challenging debut to market. Being a debut novelist is über-challenging these days. The number of books coming into the market each year is staggering. The retail outlets for those books are contracting. The time each book spends in stores seems to be getting shorter and shorter. In addition, authors are expected to do a great deal of self-promotion and marketing—something that demands a different skill set than writing a good book, a skill set an author may or may not have. Bad sales figures on a first novel can make it an only novel. So, if you are going to throw the newbie-novelist dice you want those dice loaded in your favor. That means you want your first book to be not just the BEST thing you written but also the MOST marketable. The novel I’ve got scheduled to come out in March is more marketable than my first MS was. I can see that now. I guess publishers just saw that before I did.

I am thankful for every person who said, “This isn’t working,” whether about an idea, a character, a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter in any of my manuscripts. I am thankful for the critique partners who held my feet to the fire and said, “Really? Come on you can do better than that.” I am even grateful for the time my own mother told me that one of my projects just wasn’t that great. It is A LOT easier for beta readers to pat you on the back and croon “good job.” Really critiquing a manuscript (or a query letter) takes time and energy. It also takes guts. So tough, honest, critique partners and editors who send highly detailed editorial letters are high on my list of things I am thankful for and they should be on yours too (maybe you have a slice of homemade pumpkin pie you’d like to share with them this week?).

I am thankful that I have an agent who has strong opinions about which project I should write next. Lots of writers seem to chafe at the idea that once they are represented their agents might want to “vote” on which projects they pursue or even (*gasp*) veto some of those projects. Why? If you are writing just to pursue your creative passion then by all means write that book about a man who falls in love with his goldfish only to eat it in a fit of pique, told in the first person from the POV of the goldfish. But if you want writing to be your career (hopefully a money making career) then shouldn’t you want your market-savvy, experienced agent to guide you (e.g. “you know books with fish protagonists that run 200k are not particularly marketable”)? I had a project planned (research in the can, all ready to write) before starting the manuscript that became The Sister Queens. I shared that idea with my agent and he, politely, pointed out that it was incredibly and relentlessly depressing—quite possibly too depressing to be marketable. Believe it or not, I hadn’t noticed this (my dear husband had, but I, or so he now claims, completely ignored him when he made the point). Of course a writer’s vote counts too and sometimes we have to go with our gut, but if I am going to put months of my life into writing a new book I’d rather have a candid assessment from my agent up front as to whether or not he thinks he will be able to sell it.

I am thankful for the few (see next paragraph for a discussion of the majority) established authors I’ve met who were unkind, and the few fellow writers I’ve met who, imo, were incredibly unprofessional. Watching writers behave badly is a valuable cautionary tale. For example listening to certain writers scream (or tweet) “buy my book, buy my book, buy my book” has shown me how ineffective and irritating that behavior is (and as writers we know that SHOW is always better than TELL). Writers who were snippy, catty, or hyper-competitive illustrated just how ugly that behavior is, and reminded me that being nice to others doesn’t take any longer than being unpleasant.

Perhaps most of all I am thankful for the dozens and dozens of fellow writers who have overwhelmed me with support, generous advice and random acts of kindness. These are the folks who’ve realized that a rising tide of high-quality reading materials—and, correspondingly, of avid readers—lifts all authorial boats. The people I complained about in the last paragraph will be forgotten tomorrow. But I will always remember the folks at AgentQuery Connect who held my hand and covered my back during the query and submission processes; the established historical fiction authors who sat down with me at writing conferences and corresponded with me on-line offering useful tips on everything from participating in the cover process to marketing and planning for the next book; and the advanced readers who have taken the time to endorse my novel, to put it on their “to review” list, or simply to tell me they enjoyed it.

As you walk the “writers’ path” this November what are you most thankful for? Did any of the things you are now grateful for look like bumps in the road when you saw them first?


Christopher Hudson said...

These days, the unknown author isn't throwing dice, he is buying a lottery ticket ... with maybe worse odds. Still, I figure I can't lose for ever ... even if I'm doomed to try.

JeffO said...

Very nice post, Sophie. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

RSMellette said...

Of the many things I have to be thankful for, the most apropos here would be you.

You, and the other authors I know who have signed deals this year.

In these digital times, it's nice to know that, yes, Virginia, there is a publishing contract.

Sophie Perinot said...

RS, you just made me fell mushy. Seriously, without the rest of the "Write Angle Crew" this would be a rougher and more lonely road. Happy Thanksgiving!

Anita said...

I'm thankful for the awesome stories in my head...the ones that get me through miles-long runs and entertain my kids. I'm thankful for this beautiful world, so full of words, words, words.

Sophie Perinot said...

Anita -- spoken like a true writer :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Fabulous post, Sophie. I'm thankful for so many things in my writing life: great crit buddies who know their stuff, agents & editors & authors (aspiring & contracted & published) who spend some of their time helping others learn the ropes of this crazy business, AQC & the FTWA crew and especially those who help me push past the fear of the 'next step'! :)

Matt Sinclair said...

I'm thankful for this post. Seriously. It's reminded me of many things I take for granted that are special. Honesty, for one. And I'm thankful also for this group of colleagues. I know it's not New Year's yet, but here's to continued success for all of us and all our faithful readers in 2012!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

Such great advice. It's so nice to read another person's experiences.