A Moment of Jen
THE NEXT BEST THING — In Stores July 3rd!

Monday, September 08, 2008
posted by Jen at 9/08/2008 01:16:00 PM

I'm in the process of revising my 2002 advice to writers, and thought I'd post it, piece by piece, on the blog (once the whole thing's done, it'll replace the existing document here). Old text is italicized; new stuff is normal, and if it's a tad incoherent, forgive me: through the miracle of the Google, I just discovered that a certain high-minded, tres cerebral thrice-wed literary author who used to teach at Iowa and is not so much a fan of my work has two daughters with the exact same names as my two girls (although her daughters are like thirty years older) and I am deeply, deeply freaked out.

Anyhow: the introduction. Now with extra cynicism!

So you want to be a novelist?

There's no one path to take. Novelists come in all shapes and sizes. They're men and women, wunderkinds and retirees.

Well. Yes. Technically, yes. But publishing, like pretty much everything else in the world, tends to favor the young, the cute and the well-connected.

If you’re young, the logic goes, your publisher can look forward to building a long, profitable career with you over decades and dozens of books, while if you show up with your first finished manuscript in hand at sixty, that’s less likely to happen. If you’re twenty-eight and just happen to be bff’s with Dave Eggers, if you're the son of Anne Rice or the daughter of Arthur Miller, expect to meet with a happier reception than our theoretical sixty-year-old who wouldn’t know Dave Eggers if Dave Eggers bit him on the butt.

As for looks, they shouldn’t matter in publishing and mostly, they don't. Every once in a while a rumor will rock the blogosphere that such-and-such a publishing house is demanding to see headshots and/or meet potential authors before offering a contract. These rumors are, as far as I can tell, just that -- rumors. In general, if a publisher wants to meet an author in person before putting cash on the table, it's less to make sure that he or she is a potential model and more about making sure that he or she will not spray spittle on Barbara Walters while describing how the Pentavirate controls the world. Beautiful is not a prerequisite; presentable and reasonably sane both are.

However, in a climate where there’s decreasing amount of coverage for books in general and debut fiction in particular, youth and good looks don't hurt (do they ever?) No publisher ever kicked a potential author out of bed for eating crackers if the potential author was a babe. Hot author = coverage, even if the coverage consists largely of snide, dismissive mentions of the author’s alleged attractiveness (snide, dismissive mentions of alleged attractiveness, of course, being better than no mentions at all).

So! Anyone can be a writer, but if you can try to be under thirty, easy on the eyes, with famous parents and a bunch of bestselling friends, that’s going to help. And if you haven’t managed to pick your parents well, if Dad is not a New York Times columnist and Mom isn’t a best-selling author of memoirs or mysteries, if you’re an old dumpy misanthrope from the middle of nowhere, well, then, you’re probably used to everything being more difficult than it is for the young, hot and well-connected, right?

And if there was a single magic bullet, or a list of steps to follow that would guarantee publication, believe me, someone would have published it by now. What follows is just my take on the question - a completely idiosyncratic, opinionated, flawed and somewhat sassy consideration of what it take to get published. Important caveat: I have only written two books, (now six, going on seven) and I'm thirty-two (heh. Not any more), which, as my mother would hasten to point out, means I am probably not qualified to give advice to anyone about anything (my Mom still says this).

If you're looking for lessons from the life masters - people who've made long careers in the world of fiction - then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and buy Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's utterly indispensable Bird by Bird, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings and Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft.

These are all great books. I re-read Bird by Bird with every publication, marveling at the wisdom and the prescience of Anne Lamott – like Tiresias, she has foresuffered all, so she can tell you, from personal experience, how to deal with an unmanageable first draft, the tense and terrifying months/weeks/days prior to publication, and the crummy review you will get in your hometown paper (yes, you will get a crummy review in your hometown paper – it’s a guarantee! Free with your contract!).

However, in terms of the nuts and bolts of breaking into publishing, there is now a wealth of invaluable information available for free, online. Start with Miss Snark's (sadly defunct) website, on which an anonymous working literary agent spent years answering every question her readers could throw at her in her own inimitably forthright style (and by 'inimitably forthright,' I mean 'with curse words.') If you’ve got a question about query letters, royalty statements publicists, book tours, anything at all publishing-related, chances are, Miss Snark answered it…and you can search her archives to find out what she said.

If Miss Snark is too snarky for your blood, let me introduce you to the woman who emailed me to complain that there was too much sex and in GOOD IN BED (and also lesbians! She was shocked!) Then check out Kristen Nelson’s blog pubrants for a kinder, gentler take on some of the same questions. Sharp advertising/marketing advice for the published and would-be published alike can be found at M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls and Hype. These days, many authors have a website/weblog/Tumblr/Myspace/Facebook presence, and some of the friendlier ones will answer email, take questions, offer advice, and/or recount the saga of their own road to publication.

Different genres also have their own hangouts. Aspiring mystery writers should bookmark Sarah Weinman's Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind; sci-fi and speculative types will enjoy John Scalzi's Whatever, because it is funny, chick-litterateurs should read Trashionista and Conversations with Famous Writers, and all of you high-minded, pedigreed, Great American Novel-writing types...well, what are you doing here anyhow? Are you lost? I was going to tell you to go bother a certain tres intellectual former Iowa professor, who of course has no website because she is far too intellectual to trouble herself with anything as declasse as that, so I Googled her and found out her kids' names and now I have to go lie down.


All would-be author should invest in a subscription to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace, for daily dispatches of industry news, and should read Mediabistro’s Galleycat to follow trends, job changes, publishing gossip and business news (what does this have to do with writing a novel? Not much, but knowing at least the basics of how the industry works has everything to do with getting that novel published).

More revised advice coming soon, including why having an unhappy childhood is essential to a writer's success, but discussing it is probably a mistake, and why you should never pay to take a writing class from someone who can't get her own fiction published.
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