Well, here we are. It's my penultimate post, and because people like dog pics and I want you to like me, here's the first photo I ever took of Abby.
She was seven weeks old. Is it hard to imagine why she owns me? As I write this, she is sitting under my desk, peering up at me with those big, sad bulldog eyes. Note to those of you thinking about getting a bulldog: Their powers of guilt-induction are something your evil, soul-crushing mothers can only dream of. All the pooch has to do is hit you with one doleful glance while you're walking out the door to go to work, and — bang — you feel like an asshole until you come home. This will happen every day.
One of the common questions I'm asked — really, people do ask — is what advice I have for aspiring writers. My go-to glib response is, "Don't do it." And then the follow-up is something like, "No, really." So, herewith is some unvarnished advice for aspiring writers:
- Give up those dreams of a million dollar advance. Not gonna happen. Set your sights somewhere in the $1k-$20k range, because that's what you should realistically be getting paid. Remember, this is an advance against royalties, not a reward for those years spent toiling in obscurity. Your book will sell a fraction of what you think it will, and if you earn out, everyone will be happy. It's also worth remembering that the money you see from your advance will be substantially less than the raw $$ figure — you'll see half: total, minus 15 percent for your agent and 35 percent for Uncle Sam. Feel like inducing a good crying jag? Divide that number by your manuscript's word count.
- Have a platform. How I hate that word — platform. But if you bring your own publicity machine and built-in audience to the table, well, that makes it easier for everyone, now, doesn't it?
- Don't be a needy prick. Your editor has better shit to do than to play armchair shrink to your amplified, self-indulgent insecurities. Those emails you're thinking of firing off to your editor or publicist at 3:30 a.m.? Don't.
- Remember that publishing is a business. And a troubled one at that. It's been said many times that publishing isn't about good writing anymore. And while I don't know that that's entirely true, it's certainly worth remembering that publishers exist to make money, not to indulge you in your lifelong fantasy of seeing your name on the spine of a hardback.
- Don't be in a hurry. First books take a long time to write, and please don't confuse finishing a first draft with writing a book. Edit, revise, rewrite. A few times. And then go agent shopping. Then, when you have an agent, don't think you're on the home stretch. It took a year of shopping for my manuscript to find a home.
- Still don't be in a hurry. Rewrite again.
- Get a good agent. There are many out there, but there are plenty of sharks. Quick anecdote: my first agent was a fucking lunatic. Out of her gourd nutty, but I signed with her because she was with an A-list agency, had good clients and had done well by a couple friends of mine. But she fucked me over and, unrelatedly, got shitcanned. Hooray for justice.
(It occurs to me that I'm sounding cynical.)
- Listen to your editor. Your editor is smarter than you. I like to think of an editor as a reader's advocate. The line you think is genius might not be, and in fact it may be nonsensical and confusing to the people who will do you the grand favor of plunking down $14 — money they could have spent on gas or the electric bill — to buy your book. Your editor will strike this not-genius line and many others. Suck it up and admit your editor is correct. Your book will be better for it, and every time you don't stet, an angel gets its wings.
When I was a freshly minted MFA grad, I was grandly deluded about what lie (laid? lay? fuck if I know) ahead. These are things I've learned, and forgive me for thinking these bits are sound advice. Writing a novel and getting it published is one of the greatest things ever, and I am beyond flattered that so many people put so much work and thought into the book. So, happy writing and good luck, and remember this passed-down nugget of wisdom: The world isn't aching for more writers. Carve out your place and don't let them drag you down.
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Jonathan Segura is the deputy reviews editor for Publishers Weekly and holds a masters degree in fiction writing from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn.
Books mentioned in this post
Jonathan Segura is the author of Occupational Hazards