What I Learned in the Process
What I learned as the author of Anno Domina can be summed up in four simple points…each broken out into millions of sub-points. Seriously, though, there were four things that I think every successful writer in today’s market needs to learn: write, edit, pitch and promote. Give less than 100 percent on any of these and your chances of success diminish exponentially.
Let’s just assume that you have a great idea for a story, that you can tell it in an entertaining fashion and that you have a firm grasp of grammar (these are three gargantuan assumptions, but let’s assume anyway). You still have to write it down, from beginning to end. All of it. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a million other things you want to do in addition to the dozens of things you have to do.
So, where do you find the time? The truth is you don’t find the time. You make the time!
What I did was I made Tuesdays my writing night. I never schedule anything for Tuesday and from 7 to 10 I lock myself in a room and I write. Whether I want to write or not, I force myself to pump out 2,000 words every Tuesday night. If I get into a groove, I’ll spend extra time writing – into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, during lunch hours, weekends, other evenings. But no matter what, come Tuesday, I have to write 2,000 words. Sometimes I take time off from my novel to write a short story that came to mind, but every Tuesday night I write…once a week...2,000 words…always and without fail!
After one year, I had the first draft of 2030, my working title for Anno Domina.
Okay, so the novel’s written. Congratulations! Let the euphoria wash over you. Go out and celebrate.
Done celebrating yet? Because your book still isn’t finished. It’s not even close. In On Writing, Stephen King writes that his second draft is the first draft minus 10 percent (and I think the average writer should cut out a lot more than that).
But how can you possibly cut that much out of your masterpiece?
I start with the easy stuff. First, I get rid of adverbs, especially “ly” adverbs. Then, I eliminate characters. In Anno Domina, I didn’t need to tell the back story for each of the twelve Adherentes, just the few who actually did something important. Finally, when I come across a scene that seems to drag a little, I either whittle it down to its bare bones or I delete the whole thing. If you think it drags, your readers will think it's torture.
For Anno Domina, my first draft was 80,000 words and it focused on three main characters: Father Joe, Bishop DeMarco and Governor Driver. Knowing I needed a single protagonist, I shifted the book’s focus to the governor and relegated the clergymen to the governor’s advisors. I cut nearly 20,000 words (25 percent), reworked dozens of chapters and wrote an additional 15,000 words for a final word count near 75,000. After another round of edits and a title change, Anno Domina came in at around 70,000 words.
But, those simple, heart-wrenching changes made a world of difference. Now, it's got the pace of a suspense novel.
With a tightly woven story fully developed and ready for the world to read, it was time to find a home for it, someplace where the staff would ambitiously get it into reader’s hands. I needed a publisher. And not just any publisher. I needed to sign with one of the Big Six. And in order to do that, I needed to secure an agent. Of course I had dreams of my agent calling me to tell me reps from all over were fighting for the rights to print my book. I envisioned Anno Domina on the New York Times bestseller list for a record number of weeks. I thrilled at the thought of quitting my job so I could make guest appearances on the talk show circuit.
To paraphrase Matthew 19:24: It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a non-published writer to enter into a contract with one of the Big Six.
One year and hundreds of rejections later, I was no closer to being a published author than my dog was. However, a couple good things came from that exercise: tempered expectations and a solid query letter.
There are millions of resources explaining how to write a good query letter, but I don’t think the web or the blogosphere tell newbie writes just how vital this document really is. Aside from my salutation and my name and contact info, my query letter for Anno Domina came in at 312 words. Without exaggeration, I think those were the most important 312 words I have ever written as an author.
If you want to be an author, do not short-change your novel by phoning in your query letter.
I’m an advertising copywriter. I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years and still, to this day, I have such a hard time promoting myself and my book. I feel ridiculous going around and beating my chest. To me, it’s like I’m standing up in the middle of a crowded mall and screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’m a great writer, I’ve written a great book and you can get your copy right here for $16.99.” But the truth is, as ridiculous as it feels, screaming at the top of your lungs is how you make sales.
The entire generation behind me seems to have no qualms about shamelessly promoting themselves to anyone who wants to listen. They’ve been blogging for a decade, posting on Facebook for half that long and uploading videos of themselves doing to stupidest, most inane things for the last couple of years. And you know what? They’re building their brand. Sure, their personal brand positioning might leave something to be desired, but they’re putting themselves out there, selling themselves to the world.
You may have written the greatest novel humankind will ever know. But unless you get out there and tell people, it’s never going to sell.
So, what bits of advice can I offer the fledgling author?
- Force yourself to write, because no one else is going to write it for you.
- Once it’s written, it’s far from done. Edit, edit, edit…then edit some more.
- Your query letter can’t be merely adequate, it must be exceptional.
- You can’t sell books unless you promote it...shamelessly or otherwise.