Thursday, August 28, 2008

Apples and Oranges

So far I've talked largely about the craft of writing, but today I'm going to discuss something related to writing for publication: rejections, and what they tell you about your work.

Submitting your work to publishers can be pretty discouraging. You send a manuscript to a faceless editor, wait for eons to hear back from him or her, and then just when you're thinking, "Hey, maybe it's taking this long because the editor is seriously considering whether to publish my work" . . . BAM! You get a rejection in the mail -- and it's a form letter. Wah!

The standard advice -- and it's good advice -- is to get right back on the proverbial horse and send the manuscript out again to someone else, before your tears have even had time to dry. But this can be very hard to do, because each rejection leaves you wondering whether your writing is really any good. "Am I wasting my time?" you ask yourself over and over again. And as you amass more and more rejections, you're increasingly tempted to quit writing altogether.


Getting rejection slips is no reason to stop writing -- and it's also no reason to think that your writing is bad. You can't assume you're gathering rejections because of the quality of your writing. Instead, the most likely truth is that you're trying to sell apples at a citrus festival.

"Huh?" I can hear you saying. "What does fruit have to do with this?" Well, here's what. Think of your manuscripts as apples -- the most beautiful, most delicious apples on the planet. Imagine you've decided to sell them at a farmer's market. You load them up in your truck, knowing they're so perfect (and they really are!) that they'll sell immediately, but after you set up your booth at the market you find you can't give your apples away. Not one customer wants them -- and after several dozen rejections, you finally figure out why. Yes, you've accidentally arrived at the market on Citrus Day, and the only thing people are buying is oranges.

To avoid this calamity, do your market research to make sure it isn't Citrus Day where you're selling your wares. That is, know which publishers are buying what, and then be sure to give them what they want when they want it.

But this brings up another issue: should you write only for the marketplace? That is, should you let the marketplace dictate exactly what you're going to write? Well, let's go back to our apple discussion. Your apples, remember, were perfect -- and they probably turned out this way because you love growing apples and know a lot about them. So if you were suddenly to decide to grow oranges instead, and you hated oranges and/or didn't know or care about knowing anything about growing them, your oranges certainly wouldn't turn out to be market-worthy. So no, don't change your crop just because you've been going to the wrong marketplace. Instead, find the right marketplace -- even if it takes months, or even years, for the next Apple Growers Festival to come around again.

(And in the meantime, don't get discouraged!)

Oh, and one last thing. At the beginning of this post, I said I was going to talk about what rejections tell you about your work. And as you've probably figured out by now, they tell you very little or nothing about your work -- but they tell you a whole lot about your marketing tactics. So use those rejections as a nudge to spend more time doing your homework, in regard to researching editors and publishers. (We can talk more about how to do this research in the future, if you like.)

Until next time, happy writing! (And a big THANK YOU to Desert Rose, for leaving the very first comment on this blog. I hope to see many more!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Audience

I haven't posted here for a few days, largely because I'm not sure this blog has an audience. (Comments, anyone?) I'm used to writing things I know that someone (my editor, at the very least) is going to read. And because of this, when I write I keep my audience in mind, choosing my words in accordance with whom I think they'll be reaching.

Beginning writers often have trouble with this. They need time to identify their audience (who am I writing for?) and to learn how to adjust their language and their content to suit this audience.

So what kind of adjustments do you need to make? If you're writing for young children, you'll need to use simple sentences and simple words that match the reading level of your audience. (You can check the grade level of your writing via Microsoft Word's readability statistics; to activate this option, go to "Tools," then "Options," then look in the "Spelling and Grammar" tab for the box that, when checked, tells the program to show the readability index.) And as far as content goes, you'll need to think about the interests of your target age group, asking yourself, "What do my readers care about, and what kind of world do they live in?"

As an example, imagine the world of a young child as opposed to the world of an older teen. A four-year-old's world is very limited; he's primarily concerned with his immediate family, his pets, his house, and his toys and games. He might have friends outside his family, but he might not. (Remember, not every four-year-old goes to preschool or daycare and/or has a mom who arranges playdates.) A 16-year-old, on the other hand, spends most of his time in the 'outside world' away from home and family, driven to separate from his parents so he can form his own identity. Consequently he's primarily concerned with building new relationships, earning money, learning skills associated with independence, and figuring out what he wants to do with his life. So a story set entirely at home, perhaps involving the family pet, would be of high interest to a young child but probably of very low or no interest to a teen.

Since I don't (yet) know my audience here, I'm not sure if the information I've just shared will be of interest to my readers. Some of you might be saying, perhaps with some frustration, "I already knew all this stuff!" But I do get stories from some of my writing students that, according to those students, is for "all ages" or "ages 8 to 17" or some other broad audience -- and if you think you're writing for "all ages" too, think again. Are you sure that a four-year-old and a 60-year-old would both be equally interested in your story or article?

In fact, even if you're writing just for adults, give some thought as to who, exactly, those adults might be. Seniors have different interests than 20-somethings (as TV producers and advertisers have long known), and if you can target your writing to one group or another and then market your work accordingly, you'll probably have more success at getting published. (One of the reasons that Chick Lit took off so quickly, I believe, is because it has such a narrow audience, which makes it easier for publishers to market.)

We'll talk more about audience in the future. In the meantime, why not leave a comment about this topic, or about some other topic you'd like me to discuss? I'd love nothing more than to tailor my posts to the needs of my readers -- but first I need to know who those readers are!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Great Novel-Writing Guide

I'm currently reading an excellent guide to novel-writing, which I plan to recommend to students in my book-writing course who are working on fiction. It's called How NOT to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them -- A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

And I'm delighted that the authors were grammar-savvy enough to hyphenate the compound adjective in their title. To know whether your own adjectives need hyphenation, just consider whether each word could stand on its own without its companions. For example, in "a cold-weather scarf," the hyphen is there because it wouldn't make sense to say "a weather scarf." That is, "weather" must be linked to "cold" in order for it to function as an adjective without causing some head-scratching.

This example, by the way, was inspired by the fact that I've just spent the past fifteen minutes looking at knitting patterns. I received some alpaca yarn as a gift but don't have enough yardage for the shawl I want to make, which means I'll have to make a scarf instead. But people in Southern California rarely wear knitted scarfs, especially ones in alpaca (which is very, very warm), so I'm going to be very out-of-fashion. (There's another example for you. I'm not going to be out. I'm not going to be of. I'm not going to be fashion. All the words have to be linked together for you to understand exactly what my dilemma will be.)

See? I told you that some personal stuff would be mixed in with my writing tips. In fact, the subject of knitting will probably pop up quite a bit around here. If you're one of my knitting friends from Ravelry, you're probably thrilled with this. Otherwise you're probably saying, "Huh? You mean, authors knit?" (Yup, they do. You'd be surprised how many knitters I've encountered at writing conferences.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

One Small Step

Well, I've finally done it! I've created a blog -- as if I don't already have plenty of writing to do! My goal here is primarily to share tips about writing and to chronicle how my own books go from idea to publication, but I'll also be talking about 'the writing life' -- or at least, a version of 'the writing life' where the writer is a mom with a chaotic household and plenty of pets and hobbies (including marathon knitting and, now, blogging too) to distract her from her writing.

(And you thought only unpublished writers use busy-ness as a way to procrastinate? Ha!)

So here we go . . .