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Advice I Wish I Knew about 20 Years Ago

Fast forward through the years until I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1991. (We'll just skip over my hippie years of living on an Indian reservation and attending lots of concerts, my divorces, raising my daughter, and my career in the food business before I returned to college and my first love — writing.)

I started teaching both writing and cooking classes in 1991. I couldn't find a writing job, so I started juggling a series of part-time gigs. I was surprised to discover that I liked teaching and possessed a shtick that made students pay attention. The more I taught, the more I learned, and I kept analyzing what makes fiction or nonfiction compelling. I started working as an editor for a publishing firm for about 12 years, and that was pretty much a nightmare for reasons I cannot divulge, so eventually I struck out on my own as a developmental editor. I also began writing books about what I was learning from teaching and working with writers.

The first part of the title of my new book is a line that comes from a rejection letter. Originally I had planned on calling it Dear Bad Writer, but my publisher nixed the title. If you can take it, read on.

The title Dear Bad Writer was suggested by my friend Stacey. She often asks me what book I'm writing or the current manuscript I'm wrestling with. And I'll say something like, "Well, I'm editing a story that's set in an Amazon leper colony in the late 1800s and it's about a hopeless love triangle and an amazing Irish Wolfhound.""Well, I'm editing a story that's set in an Amazon leper colony in the late 1800s and it's about a hopeless love triangle and an amazing Irish Wolfhound." And she'll sputter something like, "Innnteresting... is it any good?" I answer, "Well it could be if the writer hadn't killed the dog, if the pacing wasn't as slow as glaciers forming, and if every third word wasn't a modifier. And now I need to write a 20-page memo and break her heart and explain why the dog is the best part of the story." Stacey sighs, "God, I'd hate to have your job. Dear Bad Writer..." mimicking me formulating my memos. To which I replied, "Oh, my God. That's gotta be the title of my next book."

I ended up with a more diplomatic title because Tarcher was sure that writers wouldn't want to identify themselves as bad writers. But what I want to say here is that it really does break my heart to tell writers that their ideas or techniques aren't working. Luckily, I also work with good writers and published authors, but way too many beginning writers are pretty clueless, and they spend months and years on a project without first learning the basics. Can I just use the word heartbreaking one more time here and then add that, despite all this kvetching, becoming a published author is doable?

Here are a few harsh truths that unpublished writers need to face (And, by the way, since lots of writers write just for the fun of it, this is geared toward people who write to sell):

1. About 99.5 % of all manuscripts are rejected by literary agencies and publishers. Your chances of getting published increase if you write shorter, not longer. The manufacturing costs and cost of paper in publishing is a huge factor, and publishers are much more willing to take a chance on publishing a cheaper, shorter book than a longer, more expensive book by an unknown writer. Publishers also need to charge more for longer books and booksellers can fit more short books onto their shelves.

2. Talent is not enough: A platform will give you an edge. As in, you need to prove that someone besides your mother will buy your book. And yes, this goes for fiction writers too. Jessica Anthony won McSweeney's Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. Instant platform. Scott Rosenberg founded, my favorite online site. Huge platform. Start a blog, join professional organizations, create a mailing list, devise a podcast, give talks, teach classes, give away stuff.Start a blog, join professional organizations, create a mailing list, devise a podcast, give talks, teach classes, give away stuff. Your book is a product and you need to prove you can sell it. Join writing organizations like Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, etc. Make friends. Lots of friends. It's unlikely that your publisher will lavish their publicity dollars on you, an unknown, or send you on a 10-city book tour. So buck up, face the fact that writing is a business, and figure out how to drive sales.

3. Learn a lot about the publishing biz as you slip your toes into these sharky waters. The cheapest and easiest way to do this is to read author's websites and blogs such as Sherman Alexie, Charlie Huston, Elizabeth Berg, or George R. R. Martin; editor's blogs such as Editorials Anonymous, Avon Romance, and Editorial Ass; and agent's blogs Janet Reid, Literary Agent and Pub Rants.

Also keep in mind that the staff cuts and consolidations in the publishing industry mean that editors are even more overworked and busy these days. You need to deliver impeccable products to some of the most time-pressed people alive.

4. Meet industry insiders. If you live in the middle of nowhere, see suggestion #3. If you live in a city, attend book signings/readings (free) and ask the author how he or she broke into print. Most authors like to help unpublished writers and will patiently answer your question about how they met their agent. If you have the money, attend writing conferences. These days, besides offering workshops on craft, many are geared toward connecting writers with the publishing or movie-making industries. In the Northwest, conferences sponsored by Willamette Writers, The Surrey International Writers, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and Oregon Writers Colony are all first rate.

5. You probably need an agent. Now there are ways around this, such as winning prizes, penning a mega-successful blog, or publishing with a small, independent, or local press. For example, Hawthorne Books here in Portland acquires unagented books, and publishes one of my favorite writers, Poe Ballantine. If you're writing romance, most of the romance house are looking for new writers and will accept direct submissions. But most large publishers simply will not read a proposal that is not submitted by an agent. And agents are also deluged with requests these days.

If you somehow find a publisher on your own, or get a nibble from a publisher, then you probably need an agent to seal the deal.If you somehow find a publisher on your own, or get a nibble from a publisher, then you probably need an agent to seal the deal. A writer I know, Mark Henry, who writes urban fantasy (his first book was Happy Hour of the Damned) went this route. You might also find a lawyer to look over your contract — they're full of amazingly indecipherable legalese. Good resources for agent hunting are Literary Market Place or Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. If it sounds like becoming an author requires a lot of research, you'd be correct in that assumption.

5. Before you send out your manuscript, solicit feedback from readers. If your well-read friends don't understand your story or think your protagonist is a pushover, or would rather stick glass shards into their eyeballs than keep reading your pages, alas, an editor or agent will probably agree.

6. Break the mold. Too many writers rehash the same tired old plots and ideas, or propose another cat book or a book where the answers can be found via online search. Too many writers write what they know — a mother of two writes about a mother of two. A twenty-something who cannot find love writes about a twenty-something who cannot find love. Ho hum. Write your deepest yearnings, passions, fears, and crazy-ass dreams. Good writing is transcendent. Aim your words at a reader's heart, intellect, and emotions.

7. Write for an editor or agent. They are word people and they've seen a lot of bad writing, and are dying to find the book that makes their heart beat just a bit faster. This excitement begins with language and voice. Describe with verve and intimacy. Readers want an experience when they pick up a book or manuscript — it needs to enter their imagination, penetrate their senses, ride in their veins.

8. Write. All the time. Turn off the television, ignore the dog, and curtail your sex life. You think I'm kidding? For most of us, writing is a long, unpaid apprenticeship.

9. Toughen up. You'll likely face rejection and misery and dead ends along the way, and you need to learn from rejection and mistakes, not wallow in self pity or loathing for the publishing industry.

10. Keep dreaming. It's all possible, even for those of us who were raised not to believe in ourselves or the value of our dreams.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction and The Writer's I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life. She works as a developmental editor and was formerly the writing expert at an online magazine. Morrell teaches writing at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and leads a series of workshops in the Northwest.

Books mentioned in this post

Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

4 Responses to "Advice I Wish I Knew about 20 Years Ago"

    Mike Porter August 27th, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks, Jessica, for writing this. I like the creative part but do not like to do any of the other. I can do it, but don't believe I have the necessary commitment to get myself published. I may change my mind after I finish writing my memoir and about my almost 90 yr old kooky father who is now in hospice care.
    I hope to come to WW to hear to talk next...or come to one of your workshops.

    John Barnes August 28th, 2009 at 10:00 am

    If I may add a suggested #11:

    Stay a beginner as long as you need to, and try to know how long you need to.

    My credentials for adding that are that I'm not a beginner; 28 published novels, most recently TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND, and I do quite a bit of book doctoring (which I prefer to "developmental editor" because I prefer to think I work on books rather than people -- less blood gets splashed around that way). Too many newer writers I see have mastered everything except that little tiny bit about writing something good; they know how to market and promote, schmooze and network, they know all that industry stuff, they know how to approach a hot topic, they've got the slang and the insiderness down cold ... it's just that, um, well, that's not much of a story. As you say, the dog was the good part and he's dead. True, while you're learning the craft of fiction, you can also be learning the business of it; but no matter how much business you learn, you have to learn the craft to have anything to do business about, and I'm seeing many impatient clients who figure that since they know how foreign rights work, they're ready to sell the book -- even though they don't know how scene works, or suspense. And the only way to get what you need to learn is to come at it with that beginner mind that says "I don't know anything and I want to." Don't become an old hand (with an old hand's reliance on experience and knowledge) until you've gotten everything you can get out of being a beginner, and particularly in areas of art and craft.

    When can you stop being a beginner about art and craft and all that? I'll let you know if it ever happens to me. Ultimately, you're a writer because your stuff is worth reading and your next stuff will be more worth reading -- not because it's worth money. Or as Walter Jon Williams said (in a great novel that the business folks then crapped up for him): You have to be in it for the ride, not for the cargo.

    Nancy Bateman September 1st, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    I've taken several classes from Jessica Morrell and own a few of her books too. She is a wonderful teach in person or in print. My writing has improved because of her influence and I'm a full-time professional writer and editor. Jessica: You are still my hero. Keep writing.

    Nancy Bateman September 1st, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Oops. I meant "She is a wonderful teacher..."

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