Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Self-Publishing, to wait or not to wait...

In my last installment on the concept of waiting in a writer's life, I wanted to address self-publishing.

There are plenty of good, successful self-published books out there. There are also a lot of unpolished, error-filled drafts, which people rush to publication before the manuscript is ready.

Here's some thoughts I would encourage those interested in self-publishing to think about before they shell out the money and put their work into the world.

First: Why self-publishing? If you don't want to deal with large publishing houses, loss of control over your work, and finding an agent, then self-publishing may be a great way to go. If your work is quirky, cross-genre, or unusual in some way, and you're hearing "this is a great manuscript, but it doesn't fit into any of the categories we handle" then self-publishing may be the only way to go. Lastly, if you're wanting only a few copies for friends and family, as a "hobby" or a one-time product, like a family genealogy or something specific to a very small group of people, then self-publishing will do exactly what you need.

But, before you make that decision, there's a few things to consider. The first is, have you looked at small independent presses? These are not the same as self-publishing outfits. Independent presses are NOT part of the big conglomerates, they are boutique, often specialized, publishers with the same submission, editing, and support process as a big name publisher (except you don't usually need an agent to submit). They may have fewer resources than a big publishing house, but they still put out a polished, professional product. Authors working with an independent publishing house will have an editor, through rewrites if needed and the all important line-edit for that final error-proof copy. There will be support for finding cover artwork, layout, and some level of PR. This will vary from house to house, but keep in mind, first time authors don't often get a lot of support from the big houses for PR, so that's not a guarantee regardless of the size of the publisher. Lastly, the author won't have to foot the bill for production. And, while Independent publishers typically don't pay out a big advance like one of the big houses, they will pay some advance, and often pay a higher percentage as sales continue over the life of a book.

Independent presses are more likely to take risks with genre, style, and new authors, in part because they DON'T pay out those huge advances, so they aren't on the hook for all the books that don't sell.

It's true, you do have to go through a submission process with an Independent press. They may turn you down. You do have to wait while they consider your manuscript. Many of them require exclusive time with your material, so you can only submit to one at a time. This, I would argue, may be time well spent waiting. If they say yes, you're work will be in experienced, professional hands.

If, however, you still want to self-publish, I say, yay you! Take control of your writing and make your work available to the public. There's nothing wrong with that -- but I caution you to take your time, even with your own "process."

Have you truly proofed your material enough? If you've been the only reader, I can almost guarantee you that the answer is no. The first option open to you is to get those all-important beta-readers. Find a group of people who are willing to read your material, and give you solid, honest feedback. Make sure they are people who understand writing. They should have skills as proofreaders for typos/grammar errors, but also big picture concepts, such as story arcs and character development.

If you have these people in your life (writers groups are a great place to start) make sure you are clear with them about what you need. Ask them to look for specific issues, and explain how you'd like notes.  Even if all you want to know is "did you enjoy the book" -- it's still helpful for your beta readers to know what will help you. Then, take all their notes! You don't have to use them, but be thankful you've got people who will do this for you. It's up to you how to use the info they give you, but hopefully you've chosen these individuals because you trust them, so listen to what they have to say.

Take the time to think about their feedback, even if you don't agree at first. I have discovered over the years, the feedback I most disagree with to begin with, is the most important feedback I get, I just have to take the time to figure out why.

Then, make sure someone, other than you, does the final line edit. Even professional editors have trouble finding mistakes in their own work. We're just too close to it. If you don't know anyone with those kind of skills, get yourself professional help to do that final edit of your book.

Putting the time in at the end of your writing process to polish your material will pay off in the long run. You will be happier with the final product, and so will your readers.

Writing is a marathon, not a foot race. We all want our work published and on a shelf, real or virtual, so I understand the impulse to publish TODAY! But you've worked long and hard on your manuscript, waiting just a little longer while you make it the best you can, will be the icing on the cake.

and we all love cake!

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

In a continuation of my series on the nature of waiting, today I want to discuss some of the benefits of being a writer who bides their time.

For traditional publishing, there are a number of gatekeepers for a writer to pass through, each of which requires reflection on one's material.

In pursuing an agent, writers often go to workshops, conferences, and then through the all-to-tedious submission process. These are all good things! Even when it may not feel like it.

With workshops, our work gets better. With conferences, our work gets better, and, if we're paying attention, through the submission process our works gets better. This is due, primarily, to two things: reflection on our own work, and solid, constructive criticism.

I have never written something, that if I walked away and left it for a while, I couldn't see flaws when I returned. The longer we spend away from something, the clearer our "editor" eye sees.

Some may argue they'll get out of a writing groove, or forget the heart of the story, or lose momentum. I would argue that each pass of a manuscript requires a new writing groove, a new journey into the heart of the story, and its own momentum.

Writing is easy. Rewriting is hard. That's why lots of manuscripts languish in desk drawers…...

The beauty of conferences is that not only do we get to sit in on great workshops, hear wisdom from successful writers, agents, and publishers, but we also have the opportunity to get critiques from the very agents and publishers we want to work with. Take the feedback to heart! You don't have to do everything a reader tells you, but you do have to pay attention. They have a point, that you must respect, and if you choose not to use their advice, you have to know why. And, you have to be able to justify the decision to keep your work as is, even if it's just to yourself.

(As a side note. Never argue with an agent/editor/publisher about their feedback. It's unprofessional and pointless. Take the note, say thank you, and move on. What you do with their feedback is up to you, but be respectful, they are putting time and effort into trying to help you make your work something an agent or editor will want to represent.)

Lastly, during the submission process, if you're hearing "no, thank you" to every query, or even worse, the dreaded "if you don't hear from us…" and you aren't -- that speaks volumes. There's a couple things that might be keeping your publication dreams at bay. Here are a few possibilities.

1. You are querying the wrong agents, because you don't know your market and don't follow the guidelines.
There's no excuse for querying an agent who only carries non-fiction, about your latest novel. Make sure you have spent the time to research agents who carry the kind of work you do. There are a lot of books out there that list agents and agencies and what they represent. Always check the agency websites for the most up-to-date submission information. Read a few of the  books they've represented and make sure your voice fits in with their preferences.
 2. Your query letter fails to catch an agent's attention.
There are a ton of books, websites, blogs, and workshops on a good query letter. Have you done your research? Does your query letter conform to the expectations most of these sites outline? If not, get busy rewriting that query and researching what makes a strong query letter. Don't be cute. Don't be clever. Write succinctly and clearly. Your work should be polished enough to sell itself, it shouldn't require a "clever" query letter. If you haven't gotten a bite after a few submissions. Look at your query letter again. Can you make it better? (And be sure you're getting the salutation correct - never Dear Agent. Or Dear Mr. Jane Doe.  If gender is unclear, google them, see if you can find a picture or reference so you know if it's Mr. or Ms. there's nothing worse than getting someone's name wrong. It shows a lack of attention to detail, why would they think you can write a book?)

3. Your writing isn't polished/solid/original enough for mainstream publishers.
Step back from your work, if you can find a typo on the first page or even the first chapter, you haven't proofread enough. If you're not good at proofreading, find someone who is. This may mean hiring a freelance editor, but if you want to be successful, you need to have professional "tools." Know your weaknesses. Do you have beta readers? People who will give you HONEST feedback about the viability of your work? These can't just be people who want to make you feel good. They must be readers in the genre you write, they must have a strong understanding of story structure, and they MUST be able to tell you the truth. If you know they read cozy mysteries, and the book you've given them isn't a cozy and they can tell you why it's not a cozy, but you want to argue -- you don't understand your genre. If multiple readers tell you they found mistakes (grammar, spelling) or inconsistencies (character's act in ways that don't make sense, plot lines go nowhere, events feel unrealistic given the world you've created) it doesn't mean your work is unpublishable. It means it's unpublishable NOW. Take the feedback. Mull it over. Take time away from your manuscript, write something else. Then, come back to it with fresh eyes and do another rewrite. Be honest with yourself. If it's your first manuscript, is it a learning experience and now you should write another? Or is there enough of value to keep rewriting? If you don't think there's anything you can "fix" but no one's interested. Write your next book!

(Yes, you can self-publish and that's a valid choice -- more on that next week -- stay tuned)

Almost every published writer has been through a process like the one I've outlined above. They've worked with writer's groups and beta readers. They've attended classes and workshops and conferences, and applied what they learned to their work. They have most likely written multiple books before they sell their first one. They researched agents and publishers and submitted only when their work was ready. Then, after an agent said yes, they did a rewrite based on feedback from the agent. Then, after finding a publisher, they did rewrites based on the editor. Then another rewrite based on line edits. Getting the picture? Lots of rewrites. This can be a long process.

It's a lot of work, but worth it. Put in the time to hone your craft. You wouldn't want a doctor who's never done a surgery to cut you open. You wouldn't want to use the first draft of any Windows program. Writing is no different. Take the time. Work hard, but wait for the right time to submit.

Check in next week for more thoughts on how waiting plays an important role in a writer's life.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Writers are waiters, sometimes literally. We work in restaurants for minimum wage and tips to support our writing “habits.” But even if we aren’t asking if someone wants to hear the day’s specials, or order a cocktail before dinner, we are always, always, living in the act of waiting.

We wait for inspiration. We wait for time to write. We wait for the right word to come, the one sitting on the tip of our tongue, just out of reach. If we’re lucky, we wait for royalty checks and contracts and brilliant, critical reviews.

But mostly, we wait for the call, the email, or the smoke signal, which validates us as professional writers. We wait for the “yes.”

The outside world knows little about the production and publication process. As a playwright, I’m often amused by the question “but why don’t you just get X theater company to produce your play?”

I know it’s a question asked with the best of intentions. But my first thought is always, GEE, I NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT. Despite being a working playwright for almost twenty years, asking a theater company for a production never crossed my mind! And while I’m at it, I’m going to call up Random House and ask why they turned down my novel. After all, it’s not like they don’t have thousands of submissions for the miniscule amount of slots they have available for publishing a new author, I should have just ASKED NICER.

But once I get past my initial, knee-jerk reactions, I think about the nature of how being a writer is a career of waiting. Here’s the truth of it, from my perspective. We send out our manuscripts: plays to theaters, novels to agents and publishers, screenplays to agents and production companies. And then we wait. That’s about all we can do unless we self-publish or self-produce.

There is a process in place to work in “traditional” modes, and that requires incredible patience on the part of the writer. And one of the reasons I don’t talk about where I’ve submitted material to “outsiders” – is because I know I may wait a year or more to get a “yes,” and I don’t want to be asked, constantly, “so have you heard back from… fill in the blank.” It feels like too much failure to constantly say, “Not yet, I’m still waiting.”

One thing I think “new” writers should be better prepared for, in the workshops, the self-help guidebooks to writing your first novel, the classes, the writers groups, is how to deal with the waiting. It’s different than dealing with rejection. Rejection is something we can understand. The “no” is the point at which you can cross the name off the list and move on. The waiting is a no-man’s land of anticipation, especially when it’s for a place that requires you don’t submit elsewhere until you hear back from them one way or the other.

So what’s a writer to do?

Write, I say, write.

With so little in our control over the “yes” – we must move forward on the one thing we can control, our next project. I find it satisfying to send things out and know that whatever I’m working on now is better than whatever I’ve submitted before, to know that I continue to hone my craft and improve my work. That no matter what happens in the future, it will all be worth the wait.