Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Your novel is not a hot potato

I read many stories every year. I don't know how many... short stories, novellas, novels. It's one of the hazards of an editor's calling in life. (And it *is* a calling.) I'm always intrigued and excited when I get a whiff that there might be an absolutely fantastic fresh voice to be discovered. From time to time, my Spidey senses tingle and I *do* find a story that absolutely hits the mark. It's really exciting gaining validation for that inbox "A-ha" moment.

As an editor, I rely on my instinct when reading a manuscript. Sometimes I pull authors out of the slush pile that need just a little bit of tweaking, but they've got what I've termed that mystical "X-factor". A little bit of nudging, tweaking and pruning where necessary, and I sit back and watch as they go out there with so much more confidence. They get agents. They get published.

But by the same measure, I can assess a manuscript and immediately tell when an author really needs to take a little more time to hone their craft. Often it's not any one issue but a conglomerate of niggles, which all contribute to why an editor or agent will pass on a submission with a polite but soulless form rejection.

The horrible thing is, it's often not something that can be fixed overnight, and there's some truth to the saying that you've got to write a million really godawful shite words before you turn out something that's good enough. (A hint: an editor can't accimagically *fix* your book, but she can equip you with the toolkit so you yourself can become a better writer.)

The problem with publishing nowadays is that it's too goddamned easy to get published. Authors churn out something that really isn't ready and with a little bit of effort (or not), either self-publish or get published by some teeny-tiny small press that barely knows what it's doing. And so the steaming pile of godawful numbers of not-so-fab reading matter clutters Amazon and other vendors.

Readers aren't stupid.

Okay, granted, we'd like to think they are when we look at some of the five-star reviews some totally dubious titles get, but who're you kidding? No, really. Be honest with yourself. That last book you wrote and published with [insert name of a small press you don't want to mention] ... was it all really that good?

Were you in a hurry to get that story on vendors' shelves? Maybe the ending was weak. Maybe your dialogue was stilted. Oh, haai, the pacing was completely borked, and you rushed the ending. Too much exposition bogging down the narrative? Were you padding words just to hit that wonderful 95k words so you could make the submission guidelines?

Are you in love with the sound of your own voice?

So, here's the deal. Spend time (a year maybe) playing with your fiction. Try out different ideas. Don't rush into publication just yet. You can still build a readership, but you're going to mess around a bit. Have fun. Learn stuff. Experiment. Get that thinly veiled Thor-and-Loki slashfic out of your system.

Write fanfiction.
Yes. Just said that. Why? Because you're going to muck around with some of those story ideas that are just wannabe Harry Potter or Star Wars. They will be like a bad rash that has run its course and won't make your fresh projects break out in hives. Plus you'll get to meet other writers who'll deliver critique. And it's FUN!

Join an online critique group.
I spent three years actively critiquing and being critiqued on Critters.org before I sold my first novel and short story. I liken this time to the amount of effort some people spend studying a BA in languages. I often learnt more from other people's gremlins than what was said about my own writing.

Start your own writers' group.
It's not as difficult as it sounds. There wasn't a SFF/H writers' group in Cape Town so I started one with a bunch of people I found via the newspapers and the internet. We've been going for almost a decade and still meet monthly. We've become a faboo bunch of friends who're supportive yet deliver critique where it's needed. IOW, we're not back-patters either (and I've seen how little back-patting achieves).

Write flash fiction. 
Apart from writing fanfics, flash fics are another way for you to get that instant gratification thing going. Go check out Friday Flash. If I had more time on my hand I'd definitely participate every week. The totally awesome thing about writing flash fics is that the form teaches you to communicate concisely. Sometimes you really need to strip your writing down to the bare basics of storytelling, and I can't even begin to elaborate how incredibly helpful this was to me.

Then consider serial fiction.
You reckon you got that Friday Flash thing pegged? Then consider Tuesday Serial for shits and giggles. Use your blog as a platform. Try writing that novella you've been threatening your mother-in-law with.

Okay, so that's five different activities that you can engage in that will really bring your writing to life. Though writing is a solitary pursuit, you don't create in a vacuum. Sometimes I get together with some of my writing buddies at my house. We all bring our laptops and lots of unhealthy things to eat cupcakes. We make tea and coffee, and we write. That's it. We write. Or we whiteboard story points that are not working for us. It's rewarding and sometimes provides that little bump we need to push ourselves that little bit harder.

Take your time to make good art too. The publishing industry's wheels turn slowly. I can promise you it's still going to be there tomorrow, in one form or another. Writing novels is not about winning a race as fast as possible. Your book is not burning a hole in your hard drive.

Most importantly, I'm going to leave you with the tree most important words Neil Gaiman ever said: "Make good art."

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