I just finished writing my fourth novel, but you won’t find the first three at Barnes & Noble or even on the ninety-eighth page of an Amazon search. They gather dust on my hard drive.
Revisiting old projects can be cringe-worthy, but I’m a big fan of sharing and comparing failures, so these are the books that died on my hard drive. They taught me a lot. Maybe they’ll teach you something, too. At least, perhaps, they’ll make you feel less alone.
My first book, “Kalos,” hit the page as a YA fantasy with too many characters and not enough plot. It chewed up the conventions of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight, and spit them back out in a grayish mess. I loved it. And I queried it hard core. Countless emails earned me a single request for the first five pages (yep, five), and nothing more. The non-responses killed me. The form rejections killed me. But they also lit my fire. They urged me to learn anything and everything about the publishing industry, to meet other writers, and to improve my work.
My second book, “Stupid Good,” seemed so killer when I wrote the last word. After the catastrophe that was “Kalos,” I’d found my genre: contemporary YA. Rooted in the real world, I discovered my voice and wrote characters that felt luscious and alive. More confident than ever, I brought this book to the DFW Writers’ Workshop. There, I found my people. People who would compliment my work when it shined and rip it apart when it lacked luster.
A few agents read “Stupid Good,” but in the end, they all turned me down. They said things like “this story has nice elements, but...” and “there’s so much to admire, but...”
I had to keep climbing, and for the first time ever, I had a community to show me the footholds.
Isla from Everywhere
After a revise-and-resubmit, my third book, “Isla from Everywhere,” hooked an agent at the DFW Writers’ Conference. Joanna Mackenzie brought a brilliant new eye to the story and helped me refine it for two years. Together, we nearly snagged a publisher.
This. Book. Almost. Happened.
But... the editor asked for (you guessed it) a revise-and-resubmit, and in the end, declined.
I have to admit, shelving this book hurt. I’m not a crier, but I cried. In the car. In traffic. On the way home from my nine to five. But “Isla” taught me the most important lesson of all: time spent writing is never wasted. Even when it seems like you shot two-and-a-half years on a project that no reader will ever read, you didn’t. Every word, every page, every draft makes you a better writer.
I won’t tell you the title of book four, because – heaven help me – this one might work out. It started living in my head last June, and right now, it’s on submission.
This novel stands on the shoulders of the first three. I know my genre, I know my voice, I know how to plot a story from beginning to end. And, guess what? Some of the characters from “Stupid Good” came back to life. I gave them new names and new circumstances, but their personalities prevailed. All those hours spent on books that went nowhere stacked up to a book with a chance.
Last time I went on submission, I found the courage to email David Arnold, my all-time favorite author. He actually wrote back (cool dude, right?) and said, “Turn off your email notifications, and drink lots of wine/beer/whiskey, etc. ( <---- Official submission advice.)” Words to live by, for sure. And yeah, my cork collection will probably grow over the next few weeks as I wait for the final word, but this time around, I know something new: I will keep going. If my fourth book ends up on my hard drive, I’ll keep writing. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again.
Writing is a solitary pursuit. If you are to become a writer, you are meant to bottle yourself up in your room and write. No interference. No distractions. Just fingers to the keyboard and a heavy dose of commitment. Right?
That’s the narrative I lived by for years. Mostly, because I didn’t know there was any other way. Then I learned about the DFW Writers Workshop and the DFW Writers Conference, a yearly event that brings in speakers, authors, and agents from across the United States.
- In 2015 I went to my first DFWCon. The first person I had a full conversation with will be my Maid of Honor in two months.
- Last year, in 2018, I pitched my novel and talked to the woman who became my agent three months later.
- This next conference, June 22-23rd, 2019 I will be speaking at the conference for the first time.
- In 2020 my book will be published.
My life has literally changed because of one entity. I have reached my dreams because of the conference’s existence. That’s power, the power of being able to meet and connect with people in this community.
It’s scary. I know. It’s scary to commit yourself to a weekend and to pitch your work in front of an agent. I too hid behind a keyboard for years and emailed my queries. But facing down those fears is what got me an agent. Because of my rambling and ability to answer the agent’s follow-up questions, I was able to articulate my story in a way that 500 words on a screen could never do. Pitching like this, talking to other writers, forging connections, it all opens your eyes to understanding how the publishing world works. In two days I learned what took me weeks of rewriting my query – I learned what my story truly entails and how to explain that in a few sentences.
You might not think that’s possible, but being around writers, learning from them and getting the chance to talk to agents, it’s the ultimate opportunity. I’ve met wonderful people. In fact, people so wonderful and supportive that I can’t even coherently explain how much they mean to me and how much they helped me reach my dream. All I can tell you is they are more than friends or even my tribe. They are my second family and I met them at DFW Con.
Soon, the day after this year’s conference, I’ll be leaving Dallas and all these amazing people I have grown to love. But, I forever hold onto their influence over my writing and you can bet I’ll be back to DFW Con for as long as it keeps opening its doors to me. And I trust it will, as it will for any newcomer or veteran of this thing called writing.
Hope to meet you there on June 22th-23rd.
You can register here.
You have two or more characters in a scene talking about something. Maybe it’s the plot. Maybe it’s character development. Maybe it’s just a scene conveying their growing friendship or burgeoning antagonism. Whatever the purpose, you end up with what amounts to pages of dialogue without much else. The dialogue might be great and the scene might get everything you want done. But it’s still a bunch of talking heads in a nondescript, uninteresting setting.
One of my biggest influences as a writer is the comic book medium. Before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I read comic books. Specifically, superhero comics, though I occasionally dove into Transformers or humor titles like “Groo the Wanderer.” While comic books and novels are different media, there is certainly a crossover in the danger of talking heads. While you can sometimes get away with it in the novel, comic books that are only drawings of faces and dialogue bubbles aren’t generally well-received. There are exceptions to the rule, but even in the world of comic book superheroes, you can’t have every discussion take place during a fight with a supervillain or a natural disaster.
The answer is baseball.
The X-Men love baseball. Or basketball. Really, any sport where characters are moving around, get to show off their powers, and discuss their relationships works. This is why the infamous Danger Room was invented. It’s not because it makes sense for the X-Men to train in a room that simulates peril. It’s because it’s a great place for characters to do super things while hashing out their problems.
We could watch the X-Men sitting around talking about their struggles, or we could see the X-Men talk about their struggles while punching robots. Or talking trash while rounding the bases. Or even merely lounging around the pool with some good old-fashioned horseplay.
Basically, doing ANYTHING is better than doing NOTHING, and the goal of that anything isn’t to distract but enhance. If that anything manages to shine some extra light on the characters in some way while we’re at it, so much the better.
Iron Man talks while building a thing. Captain America talks while doing gymnastics. Storm is gardening and makes it rain. Wolverine sits at a bar, drinking and smoking and being rough. In almost any scene, you can have it take place someplace more interesting, giving your characters more to do than just talk at one another.
Granted, you may not have a Danger Room with crushing walls in your story, but there’s almost always some way to play ball, so to speak. Even if that is, well, just playing ball.
We have a new project, an event for a day.
To celebrate Valentine's, a game we will play.
Learn a new genre, expanding our range.
Write a new romance, although it feels strange.
I'm new to the group and need to impress.
I'll write something clever, with art and finesse.
Valentine’s is hard, writing romance I'm just not that keen.
The event was announced as "just like Halloween."
I'll write of two specters whose love they must sneak
Or maybe a baddy, whose name, we can't speak.
Something so special, something unique.
I might maybe twist it to be tongue and cheek.
Alex has vampires snogging with ghosts.
Another has houses with creepy ass hosts.
Rosemary has demons all going to prom.
King has survivors after the bomb.
Steph has teen throbs, all horny and drunk.
Helen has cufflinks stashed inside of a trunk.
Colin's got coppers all speaking noir.
Enmon's got agents camped out in their cars.
So I thought that a thriller, might be just as great.
Maybe two killers out on a blind date.
But to write a good thriller, I need plot points and beats.
It's all too complex to write but ten sheets.
The bullet I bite, a story is written.
My treasure complete, as a writer I'm smitten.
I read it out loud and it’s not so --fool--proof.
Not certain what happened, the prose just went poof.
After critique, shocked silly and numb.
In the fetal position, sucking my thumb.
My text --a true masterpiece.
Reduced to mere ashes, my lines they did fleece.
They are, ever so silent, when says Johnny Bartell
It's an interesting premise, but "Show us don't tell!"
Next comes from Stacey, I listen with dread.
"I like what you've written, but what's in their head?"
My killers are meeting in a nice restaurant.
But Brook needs to know, what each character wants!
Leslie looks worried, brow furrowed in thought.
"Your characters good, but you’re missing a plot."
I wipe my wet cheeks and start to revise.
I know in my heart, these fuckers are wise.
I kill off my darlings, and rewrite my lines.
Out of ten pages. I keep one in nine.
Don’t make it too hard, ease up on the fight.
Think of an audience, who gets how I write.
I've Narrowed my readers, and weathered the storm.
I pen my first line. --Dear penthouse forum
I have never published a novel, and that makes me an expert. You might wonder why you should read a blog by an unpublished author who isn’t qualified to write a sentence on writing? Because I’m going to tell you exactly how not to do it.
You remember that episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza realizes he’s a complete failure and that every decision he has ever made in his life is wrong. And then Jerry says, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” (If you have not seen this, then click here before proceeding.) This is the religious principle upon which this blog is based, and it can guide you to the promised land.
Think about The Old Testament. It doesn’t tell you what to do to get to paradise. It tells you what not to do. Don’t eat forbidden fruit. Don’t try to build a tower to heaven. Don’t make love to porcupines or other critters. I’m about to tell you what not to do so that kind of makes this a writer’s Bible.
Together you, the aspiring author, and I, the unpublished novelist, will journey to the land of the do’s and don’ts, and if you do the opposite, you’ll be attending your first book signing in no time.
1 – Write your story about the first idea that comes into your head.
A published author once told me he generates fourteen new story ideas a week. Two a day, I thought. I did the math. After six months, he’d have produced more than three hundred story ideas. He claimed most of them weren’t very good, but there were a few decent kernels in the chaff. What a waste of time. If he’d just written about the first idea that popped into his head, he’d be six months closer to an unsalvageable first draft.
2 – Research is for smart asses.
Fiction is about “making it up.” I find research limits my ability to “create.” I just wing it. My mind is unfettered and my word counts are much higher when I don’t have to look things up.
3 – Join a writer’s group but don’t take notes.
When you attend your writer’s group, don’t bring a pen and notebook, just smile and nod as the feedback from your writing peers goes in one ear and exits through your left nostril. You and I know that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and we’re going to do it our way anyway.
4 – Don’t attend a writer’s conference.
Writers’ conferences are expensive. They’ll set you back a couple hundred bucks. Save your money and buy a book on “How to Write” instead.
5 – Stalk agents – Part 1
If you do buy a pass to a writers’ conference, there will be literary agents in attendance. It’s easy to spot them because they are the folks being swarmed and slashed with business cards by people toting free tote bags. Make sure you bring your business cards so you can participate in the bloodshed. (Tote bags will be provided.)
6 – Stalk agents – Part 2
Once you have an agent cornered and pinned against the bar, make sure you tell her or him how much you liked the vacation photos they recently posted on Facebook. Then compliment them on their attire. Now they’re ready to run.
7 – Send in your unfinished manuscript.
I always submit my first drafts to agents to see if I’m on the right track.
8 – Don’t pay for editing.
Use spellcheck. Or is it spell check? I forget. But it costs nothing.
9 – Beta readers are not your friends.
I’ve found that beta readers only want to point out your mistakes—typos, plot holes, weak character motivation, etc. Why associate with people who are so negative? Surround yourself with positive people. Let your dog read it. Technically not a person, but a mammal, and that’s good enough for me.
10 – “Rewriting is not writing, it’s tedium.”
This should be the motivational poster for every unpublished author. I picture the quote in a bold, sans serif font over a kitten hanging from a tree limb as a murder of crows pluck its fur. (That’s the best metaphor I could come up with in thirty seconds.)
11 – You are no J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or George R.R. Martin, so don’t read them.
Writers should not read. They should write.
12 – All the good stuff has been written.
You have nothing new to say. And if you did, somebody else will have already said it better, so put down your pen and watch Netflix. Here are some of my favorite shows: Detectorists, Patriot, Broadchurch (the British version), Happy Valley, and The Expanse.
In conclusion, don’t do as I do, and you’ll be well on your way to a book deal.Read more