Sunday, April 14, 2013

Two Axioms about Writing Bestsellers

When interviewed, successful novelists often say that the best thing beginning writers can do to enhance their craft is to read the classics, other good literature, and the genre for which the aspiring author wants to write.
         It’s only by doing the latter that a writer knows how that genre is being written today and what appeals to modern-day readers.
         Many nineteenth-century writings are now considered classics. But when contemporary readers try to read the long descriptions and philosophical musings in these novels, they close the books—unread. Today, many busy readers have neither the time nor the patience for that type of writing.

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), author of Middlemarsh,
which some critics consider the finest novel in the English language.

         So many aspiring writers read more contemporary novels to find out how to be successful today. For example, the prolific James Patterson, a best-selling author of thrillers, writes in short chapters. A number of successful novelists now emulate him in their writing style.
         I’ve read that readers today want shorter books and shorter chapters because they often have time to read only a few pages before having to do some other task. So Patterson and other writers who want to copy his success insist that aspiring mystery authors keep their chapters short, shift from scene to scene, and keep the action moving relentlessly.

James Patterson who’s written innumerable bestselling novels since the 1970s.

 Some readers have the notion that all published novelists become wealthy. These readers peruse articles that mention the advance a novelist got and the number of books a writer sells and believe that they, too, can become a multimillionaire by writing a bestseller. And that’s true. They can.
 But writing that bestseller, finding an agent, and getting a contract isn’t easy. And the truth is that few novels win the interest of enough readers to become bestsellers. Bestselling is always iffy.
Frustrated, these aspiring novelists do more homework and discover what type of fiction is being written today and is most often bought by readers. Their axiom becomes: Write what’s bringing in the big bucks! According to an article in the ProActive Writer Blog,

. . . of the people who buy at least one book at year, 8 out of 10 buy a fiction book . . . [but] out of the same group of people, 8 out of 10 will also buy a non-fiction book . . . Of the people buying at least one fiction book a year, just under half (48%) buy what is classed as Mystery, Thriller and Crime. . . . The second most popular book genre was Science Fiction with 26% of readers buying Sci Fi books, ‘Literature’ was close on its heels with 24% and Romance is worthy of a mention with 21% of the market.

         Now why am I writing about this today? I’d like to share with you my own first attempts at writing and getting published. When I became a freelance editor and curriculum developer in 1984, I spent the first hour of each day writing. At that time, romances were among the biggest sellers.

Nora Roberts' career began with romances.
After becoming a bestselling novelist,
she has gone on to writing women’s fiction and mysteries.

         For ten years, while in a deep depression, I’d read Harlequin romances because they ended happily with no concerns about the social issues that so worried me. These romances put me to sleep at night. In a way they kept me from throwing in the towel on life.
         So when I finally yielded to my lifelong desire to write, I bought into the axiom to write what’s bringing in the money: I picked romances as my genre. I thought I could establish a reputation with romances and then move on to historical fiction.
         I wrote two manuscripts; sent them, one by one, to Harlequin; and received two rejection letters. And why wouldn’t those stories be rejected?  I was forty-eight years old, had seldom dated, had never been in love (although I loved many people), and what I knew about sex could be etched on the edge of the left wingtip of an unemployed bee.  
         I’d read romances, but I knew nothing about the subject matter. In my craving to be published, I’d picked a popular genre to which I could bring no life experience. I finally did get published, but only when Dulcy, the cat with whom I lived for seventeen and a half years gave me our story. The one we had lived together.
         So for me another axiom proved true: Write what you know, not what’s popular. I’ll share more about all this with you in future postings.

PS: The article quoted above is quite short and worth reading for all of you who have some interest in writers and what they write.

The three photographs/drawings of novelists are from Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Ongoing Saga of the Palestine Novel

Two weeks ago I shared with you my disappointment that I’d not heard back from the four agents to whom I’d sent an e-query about my polished manuscript on first-century Palestine. I’ve since received two form rejection letters. One put this whole process in perspective with the following words:

Our agency receives over 700 submissions per month and we only take on a few new clients per year. With the publishing industry being extremely competitive we need to feel a strong conviction when representing your work. While it is not for us another agent may well feel differently.

Just think, 700 submissions per month. That’s 8,400 a year. I’m finding agent names in the book 2013 Guide to Literary Agents, which gives “updated and submission information for more than 1,000 literary agents seeking new clients.”
If, and that’s a big if, all these agents receive 8,400 submissions per year—and some must receive more, some less—then that’s 8,400,000 e-mails sent out yearly by writers like myself. I picture millions of e-query sent to all these agents. Sent with hope and expectation, anxiety and eagerness, heartwishes and visualizations. Those e-queries just swirl through the Ethernet to computers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere! Can’t you see the flurry of speed?!?!? It’s a marvel.

And just think of all the writers sitting at their computers typing novels and exposés, memoirs and cookbooks, humor and how-to books! It boggles the mind.
Now for the “late, breaking news.” The historical novelist Judy Koll Healey—who has been a good friend for many years—has offered to read The Reluctant Spy. 
In an earlier posting on this manuscript, I mentioned the help she gave me in 2002. Since then, she herself has had two highly successful historical novels published by HarperCollins Publishers: The Canterbury Papers in 2005 and The Rebel Princess in 2010. Both take place in twelfth century England and Europe.

In return, I’ll read an early draft of the final manuscript of her Canterbury trilogy, which she’s working on now. The truth is that determining the problems with someone else’s manuscript is often much easier than realizing what’s amiss with one’s own. As the weeks pass I’ll share with you Judy’s “take” on what I’ve written.
When someone reads our work, we hope for honest criticism. And we hope also that we will listen to that person’s critique with an open mind while separating the wheat from the chaff. That’s the hard point for any writer—recognizing the suggestions that work while resisting those that don’t.
Sometimes a reader makes suggestions that don’t work because they miss the expectation we have for a scene. But even those suggestions can prove helpful for they bring to light something that’s not working in our story. As given, the suggestion won’t work for our plot, but if we look at it from several different angles we get a new perspective on what might work in the manuscript.
This is what happened for me during the first two weeks of January when another fellow writer and friend read the manuscript and made suggestions as to how I might strengthen the tension and create a less lengthy book. She found whole scenes that could be deleted and others that could be cut considerably. She also suggested a change in emphasis in one chapter. I used her suggestions to delete 9,000 words from the manuscript and to polish much of the prose. Her reading was invaluable to me.
Now Judy is reading and I’m hoping that she, too, will find ways I can improve the story. Meanwhile I’m working on the first book of a Bronze-Age- Greece trilogy. I hope to tell you more about that soon.

PS: Many agencies have more than one agent, so perhaps there are only about 600 agencies, each receiving 700 queries a month. That would skew my math. But that’s still a lot of queries a year—and a lot of writers!

“Autumn Leaves,” attributed to Tina Phillips is from