Thursday, March 20, 2008

Get Going with the Grunt Work

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So I was googling Jodi Picoult the other day (thanks for the tip, Kristyn!), and started reading an interview with her that detailed her road to (overwhelming) success. It turns out that just like the rest of us, Ms. Picoult was once a nobody - someone with a day job that she didn't particularly love and someone who ran home at night and tucked in her kids and then started writing. What I found most interesting about the entire article was this quote:

"'Writing,' she says, offering me a slice of home-baked lemon and buttermilk sponge cake, 'is total grunt work. A lot of people think it's all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don't buy that. It's a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don't. Every day I sit down and write. You can always edit something bad. You can't edit something blank. That has always been my mantra.'"

And the reason I loved it is because of late, I've had so many people tell me that they've written half of their manuscript and that's it, or really have a great idea for a novel but haven't started, or feel stuck and can't motivate to write...(people tend to mention these things once you've been published, trust me), and I always sort of want to shake them and say, "If you don't at least attempt to write it, you'll have nothing! You may as well try, because you can't end up any worse than where you are now - with nothing!" (And I'm not referring to any Ask Allison readers! These are all people in my real life, so don't worry!) Of course, it would be wildly inappropriate to shake said people at my son's school or at a dinner party or whatnot, but the overall point is true, and Picoult really drives this point home.

Look, writing can be total grunt work. It's not always - and often isn't - fun. There are times when I'm working on a manuscript when the last thing in the world that I want to do is actually write. But if I don't write...I'm left with nothing. That blank page doesn't fill up by itself. And since I'm the only one who can fill it - and really, that's the goal of this whole deal, to fill up enough pages until I've told a good story - I better get going. Even if every cell in my body is telling me to find yet another way to procrastinate. I had half a manuscript sitting on my computer for two years until I finally finished it. And it wasn't until I finished it that my career as a novelist started going somewhere. Because until I did - until you do - there's simply no place to go. Period.

Something is always better than nothing. Even if it's one page. Even if it's 15 minutes a day. You can manage that. It's a drop in the bucket.

So if you're stalled, remember that Jodi Picoult, just like the rest of us, starts with a blank page, and she has to work her way out of that hole. If she didn't try, she'd be left with nothing...and so too will you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Countdown Begins

I looked at the calendar today and couldn't believe it: I'm less than seven months out from publication. Which might sound like a really long time, but in the publishing world, it's not. It's really, really not. In fact, I just sent in my copy edits (for those of you unfamiliar with the process, this is an excruciating process in which you receive a hard copy of your manuscript with red pencil all over every tiny grammatical error or non-literal word use or other words, NOT FUN!), and I should be getting galleys fairly soon. Yikes! And with galleys, so begins the big promo push.

So now, I'm engaged in that age-old debate: do I or do I not hire an outside publicist? Every single published author I've ever met has encountered this question, and even though I've been through the process before, I'm still as confused as ever. The thing is this: outside publicists are very, very costly and the truth is that you can't really quantify what exactly they do for your sales. And one of the reasons that you can't quantify this is because no one in the industry really has any freakin' idea as to what sells books. Well, sure, co-op space does (the space at the front of the store where new books are presented - publishers pay for that) and a large print run often does too because it increases visibility (though having a huge print run can also backfire), but other than that? No one really knows. A friend recently asked me if getting reviewed in Redbook, Marie Claire, etc, really helped boost sales, and I could only say, "I have no idea! In theory, I'd think so, but I have no concrete proof of this." And it's true...I'm not entirely convinced that reviews boost sales except in huge named places like People.

That said, of course you still want to receive this exposure, and thus, I'm right back into the do-I-hire-someone-else debate. I'm really excited because my in-house team is evidently doing a lot for both me and the book...but still. You hate to wake up one week after your publication date and think, "If only..." And I did feel that way with The Department, for sure, and by that point, there was little more that could be done.

Frankly, I'm not convinced that your book can do really well if you don't have a healthy print run. (Exceptions aside, which we discussed a few weeks ago.) I really believe, as do a lot of other writer friends, that if your book isn't saturating the market, it doesn't matter how many reviews you have: you're screwed. So I'm also having that chicken-egg debate: what if I hire a publicist and I have a crap print run? Then what? But maybe this publicist can get me some great clips and placements, which might excite the sales team enough to do a hard sell and thus increase my print run? (Print runs are usually based on how many books the sales team has initially sold to stores.)

Argh. Who the hell knows? It's all a toss-up, and for me, that only adds to the stress of the decision.

In the meantime, one thing that I know DOES work is emailing directly with readers. So, if you're interested, please sign up to be notified about my latest news. (I promise I'll only send a note when it's important!) See that box to your left? Yeah, enter your name there. Thanks!

So readers and authors who have BTDT, what do you think is the best thing an author can do to promote herself? Anyone hired an outside publicist and found it worth the money?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Climbing the Platform, Part Deux

Question of the day: Would you consider the fiction equivalent to platform building akin to attending conferences or networking in genre specific group, for instance RWA, or entering writing contests, short story, first chapter, etc? In those instances, do you have to walk a fine line between the value and exposure of those experiences against allowing those venues to keep you from finishing the novel, or the query, to ultimately get you published?

Building a platform, whether in the fiction or non-fiction arena, is all about name-recognition, something that will set you apart from the thousands of others who do exactly what you do - i.e., write a decent-good book on a specific subject or in a specific genre - and that will give a publisher reason to choose you over the thousands of others. As far as fiction goes, as I mentioned before, having a strong platform isn't as necessary as in non-fiction: the average debut novelist probably isn't a household name, but if you are one, or if your name is at least recognizable in some circles, certainly, this will help your cause.

I'm sure that being a member of RWA and the like will help you network, which will undoubtedly help your career (and as I noted last week, having writer friends is invaluable), but I'm not sure that this is part of a "platform" in the truest definition of the word. Landing your short stories in notable journals or winning/placing in contests is...sort of. What these credits really mean is not so much that you'll sell more books because people know your name but that you're a better writer than most aspiring writers, and chances are, you'll be taken more seriously from the query letter on up.

If you're serious about pursuing your fiction - and most of you are - I do think the best thing you can do is write the best possible book and not worry about the rest. Enter contests and land short stories if they fit into your game plan, but as you noted in your question, they can distract from your ultimate goal, which write an incredible book and then sell it. There are enough landmines to worry about in this industry - don't complicate it if you don't have to. (Non-fiction is an entirely different ballgame. Then you can sweat it because yeah, you have to.)

But what say you readers? If you're aiming to be a published fiction writer, have you built your platform? If so, how? And if not, why?

(P.S. - I hope this post is coherent. I'm unthinkably exhausted from the weekend, and I'm not sure if I'm making sense!)