Thursday, 3 October 2013

Burned: Why I hesitate to give advice to new writers

Head in the clouds
Sunny Frazier's article "Fame and Fortune? Fugetaboutit" over on Novel Spaces brought back memories of the times I almost injured friendships in my zeal to help aspiring writers come to terms with the realities of the publishing industry. Those experiences taught me to leave people to their illusions unless they specifically asked for my input.

First there was the case of Friend A. He is not a reader (except for the publications of his particular religious sect) and it shows in his writing which is unwieldy and preachy. He was out of a job and decided, since I had just snared a publishing contract, that he would write a memoir and make some fast money. Fast money? This was around 2006/2007 when Amazon's KDP platform did not exist. I explained the process of getting a book published and the time involved, but he brushed all of that aside. He'd get a big advance that would take care of all his expenses until the royalties started pouring in. Okay...

This brought us to the work that has to be done before signing that lovely contract—you know, the querying of agents and publishers. At the time few agents were accepting e-queries and the process involved lots of printing out of letters, synopses and sample chapters and mailing them to another country (my friend lives in the Caribbean, as I do) with International Mailing Coupons or return envelopes with US stamps on them. And before that, I informed Friend A, a lot of research had to be done to find the agents/editors who might be interested—online research with ultra-slow dial-up connections (remember those?)... My friend's response?

"Oh, you know all about that stuff so you can do it for me."

I think my jaw must have hit the floor at the same time my eyebrows collided with the roof, knowing as I did the years of hard work and research that led to that first publishing contract of mine. (And I'm not even talking about the writing itself here.) Hadn't I just explained all of this to my friend? Yet he thought I had a few spare months or years lying around, late nights included, to do this on his behalf. It was at this point that I began to write off his publishing aspirations, because writers must be willing to do the work. You're not willing to do the work involved? Then you're not serious, buddy. But a friend is a friend, so I hung in there and kept trying to help...

I took a deep breath and moved along to the actual writing. His book was going to be a memoir, and he had written an introduction and a few chapters. I told him the same rules apply as with a novel: there must be a narrative arc, it must be interesting and written in a style that makes the reader want to keep reading. Since it was a memoir, though, he needed to tell the truth, so he would have to excise all the intriguing anecdotes about fighting his (nonexistent up to that point) agent and editor to the death for "creative control" and "joining the ranks of the literati—damn them". He also needed, I told him, to leave out the parts about his vast qualifications to write the book and how much the reader stood to gain from reading the story—and let the story stand on its own.

He was horrified, and his first thought was that I was being malicious. Then he recalled our many years of friendship and that nothing I had ever done or said before provided a sound basis for such a conclusion, so he resolved that it must be the publishing industry that was rotten and biased and I was just showing him what he would have to deal with "out there". At that point he decided he would not waste his time and talent on such a system, and he moved on to other dreams and plans.

Friend B is another story. He also has a lot to learn, but makes up for his shortcomings with his love for and dedication to writing. He does the work, and has been doing it for many years. He puts in the time to learn more about the craft, constantly challenging himself. At some point he decided he wanted to have something to show for his years of effort, so he self-published an anthology on Xlibris. There was just one problem: he believed the royalty checks would start pouring in from the very next month. When I tried to tell him a bit about the reality of self publishing at the time, he got an angry glint in his eyes and a certain set to his jaw. I knew what he was thinking: that I had gone and gotten a publishing contract and now I was  trying to rain on his parade. I was being a wet blanket. A purveyor of negativity.

I shut up. He went ahead with his plans and at last check, after five years, he had not yet sold 10 copies of the book. He continues to ask my opinion and advice, though. The difference now is that he pays attention. I don't know everything, but I share what I do know. I'll always try to help Friend B to the best of my ability because he works hard and loves writing stories. I hope that he finds some measure of success in publishing, whatever his definition of "success" might be.

So, unlike Sunny, I no longer try to put new writers right about the realities of publishing. When they ask in person or write me for advice, I point them to helpful websites. And I don't read their manuscripts unless they are paying me to edit them. I've discovered that to some aspiring writers, it's all about fooling around with a fuzzy dream of immediate fame and fortune. They aren't interested in the years of toil, setbacks, and disappointment, with rare moments of bliss, that go into the making of a real-world publishing career.

Liane Spicer