FIVE THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN BEFORE I BEGAN WRITING
By Wayne Zurl
No one begins a new venture knowing all the ins and outs of the business. I’d been writing non-fiction magazine articles for ten years before I decided to try fiction. How difficult could it be? You write something good and publishers will be fighting to sign you. I heard that having an agent was a good thing. Another easy thing, right? You want to sell a house, list it with a real estate agent. You want to steal classified military documents, send a secret agent. So, a writer should only have to pick the literary agent that appears to be the best. Agents only make money representing writers. They should welcome a new face. Ha! That brings me to the first thing I wish I had known more about as a fledgling fiction writer.
I bought a cheap copy of WRITER’S DIGEST on the Internet and made a list of agents interested in mysteries and police procedurals. Then I constructed a proper business letter stating my purpose and described what I was peddling—in this case, my first Sam Jenkins novel, A NEW PROSPECT. The letter spanned a little more than a page and a half. It looked like a masterpiece and I started by sending out a dozen. Fool that I am, I expected responses in a week or two. Ha! (I say again) Months later, the rejections began trickling in with only terse one-liners, “Sorry, not for me/us.” Ninety-nine percent of these nitwits hadn’t read one page of my book. So, I tried another dozen. Same story.
Then I read a local advertisement. Writer’s workshop. First class: The Query Letter. I signed up and showed the instructor my letter. She smiled and began nodding. A good sign. Then she went to page two and the smile turned to a frown and the nods to an almost violent shake. Uh-oh; not good. “This may work if you’re applying for a job,” she said, “but agents want to see a particular format and they DO NOT have time to read more than one page.”
“Huh?” said I. I had visited their websites. Most agents wrote daily blogs—long ones, with precious few or no comments from followers. If these megalomaniacal self-styled power brokers had so little time, why were they wasting it writing blogs no one was reading rather than dealing with legitimate queries and hitting the bricks trying to sell their client’s books? That question has still never been answered.
So, I learned the proper structure of a query letter, had it blessed by the workshop instructor, an author with multiple titles traditionally published, and I sent out a dozen more. And then another, and another. I got so many rejections, I wondered if I needed a stronger deodorant. Only one agent showed the courtesy to send a personal note explaining his reason for rejecting my manuscript. In essence, he said he liked my “voice” and the mood of my narrative. But he told me that a sixty-year-old retired New York detective who embarks on a second career as a Tennessee police chief just wasn’t trendy. He suggested I make my protagonist a young vampire private investigator from Orange County who secretly fights crime as a Batman-like vigilante. I gave up on the agent idea.
TRENDS & MARKETABILITY
I met an award-winning author at our local library. He was a guy who’d been writing good books for more than thirty years. I told him about my novel and he told me the facts of life in the publishing business. “It’s all about money. You don’t have to be good, you have to be marketable.” I thought I was a pretty worldly guy, but had hoped at least some part of the business was for real. He continued, “Agents and publishers all say they’re looking for The Next Great American Novel. Hogwash. They’re looking for what will sell. James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t get a job writing greeting cards today.” He drew my attention to a famous quote from the great Raymond Chandler. “We are dealing with a public that is semi-literate and we have to make art of a language they can understand.” My new mentor went on to say, “You look like an intelligent adult. Read any zombie novels lately? No? You’re one of the few who hasn’t.”
When I abandoned the idea of retaining a literary agent, I focused on writing to any traditional publisher who would accept submissions directly from an author. My investigation led me to a crop of both good and questionable publishers. I wasted time weeding through those who were actually aspiring writers who self-published (nothing wrong with that) and knew their way around a computer (unlike me.) In effect, they were like the guy you meet at a new job who is there only three weeks more than you. They act like they know it all and have the world by the tail, but in truth, they may be no more than well-meaning dreamers with little knowledge or experience of publishing and the important components of the business: marketing and promotion.
Aha! This falls into the realm of pet peeves. I always thought reviews should be honest and objective opinions of someone’s work from critics with knowledge of general or specific genres of writing and good literary structure and style. Ha! (See, I said it again) There are plenty of good professional and semi-professional reviewers who do an honest job for a salary or no compensation and assist would-be readers with opinions upon which to base their decision to buy or not buy a particular book. And good for them, we need people like this. But then I discovered the skullduggery that goes on in many of the Facebook writer’s groups and the percentage of writers who wheel and deal to get spurious four and five star reviews. I’m not fabricating this or blowing smoke at you here. I’ve had offers like that which I’ll describe. “You read my book and I’ll read yours,” they say. “Likes and reviews are the only way you’ll sell books on the Internet. We have to stick together.” Then they pussyfoot around and give glowing reviews of perhaps mediocre work just to get something similar in return. Not everyone does this, but it’s far too prevalent and leaves the system diluted and suspect of being a sham.
Uh-oh, another pet peeve from Zurl. When I started writing I figured if something works don’t change it. I never intended to plagiarize anyone’s work, but throughout history, people have looked at good ideas and “borrowed” proven styles and themes. Anyone from my generation can think back to television from the mid-1950s to early-1960s. If you weren’t watching an “adult western,” you followed the exploits of cops and private eyes with strikingly similar stories. I once read that try as anyone may, all plots boil down to one of eleven basic storylines.
So, I followed my dream and made my stories mostly embellished and fictionalized accounts of real cases I investigated, supervised, or just knew a lot about, and wrote in the styles of proven artists I admired—the guys who published and sold lots of books. Why argue with success, right? Meanwhile, back in the writer’s workshop I’d hear, “You’re a new writer, you can’t do that.” I thought, “Why not? Joe Wambaugh does it all the time.” Or, “Hey, I just read something very similar from Robert B. Parker.” Or, “Jeez, James Lee Burke shifts from one POV to another all the time.” The response was, “But you’re not (enter any name you’d like,) you can’t start off breaking the rules.”
Double standards stink. If you write something well—something that sounds good, is entertaining, and tells a good story, you should be allowed to stray from the template or formula the “Big 6” permits a new writer to utilize.
Thanks for inviting me to your blog to meet your fans and followers. And thanks for allowing me to present my views on writing and the publishing business and perhaps rant and rave a little about the things I found frustrating. To all those who take the time to read my guest posting, I wish you the best and hope you enjoy the rest of the autumn and have happy holidays and a healthy and prosperous new year.