Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seven Pieces Of Advice To A Young Writer

HANK: To introduce Sara Gran, I have to name drop.

(I was once at an event with Paul Simon--no , that isn't the name drop. He was talking about name dropping. And he said the best name drop he ever heard was from John Lennon. Who said to Paul Simon--"When I was talking to the Dalai Lama the other day....")

Anyway, this is just about that good. I was at the Agatha's this year, sitting next to Sue Grafton. (Told ya.) On the other side of Sue was this very very cool woman, funny, hip, clever, and obviously a favorite of Sue's. I found out later, after a dinner full of dish and hilarity, that Sue, being asked for a blurb by Sara's editor, had almost tossed Sara's new book--without reading it-- in the "no" pile. Then, for some cosmic reason, decided to give it a go, and then--was totally hooked.

Sue's blurb: "I love this book."

Can't do better than that, right?

Anyway, everyone else is loving the book, too--amazing reviews--and now, Reds, Sara has some Sara-type insight to the wonderful world of publishing.

Seven Pieces Of Advice To A Young Writer

Ten years ago this fall I published my first book. God, am I old! But being old is fun, and I've learned a little along the way. I've just returned from a teary, emotional tour for my new book, CLAIRE DeWITT & THE CITY OF THE DEAD, and lately I've been thinking a lot about what I wish I'd known when I started in this business. Ultimately, that's a topic too big for a blog post (maybe a five-volume bound set would do the trick), but here's a few tips for all the kids out there with stars in their eyes and a contract waiting for them to sign it. Ladies, what are your best pieces of advice for "baby" writers? Which mistakes did you make starting out?

1. Trust no one. Horrible, isn't it? Of course, your agents, editors, publishers, and publicists aren't bad people (probably). But things change fast in publishing, which makes it hard for folks to keep their word. Every business has a bullshit factor, of course, but in publishing it's shockingly high. I'm not saying to close your heart or give up your compassion, but take everything, especially promises, with a grain of salt. Or an ocean.

2. Keep records. Lord, I know all you old hags like me out there agree with this one. Start some kind of a simple bookkeeping method to keep track of payments you should get and payments you do get (which may but probably will not correlate). Believe me kid, you don't want to be rereading your contract and scrutinizing royalty statements in ten years to see if you got that on-pub check for that second novel in Germany (and the answer is no, you didn't—because you weren't keeping records!). Text Color

3. Find your allies. In the crime and mystery world, most of the other writers play pretty nice. Trust your gut and find good friends. You might live across the country and you might not talk every day, but you'll need each other and enjoy each other as the years go on. I was just emailing with a pal I've never met, but have known for ten years, when both of our first books came out. Your friendships with other writers will keep you sane, healthy and happy, and serve as your reality check when an editor tells you a check that's twelve months late is perfectly normal. But keep one eye open for the drama queens/kings, sociopaths, users, and social climbers, and avoid them at all costs. Stay with the nice folks. It might take them a little longer to succeed, but they get there eventually, and when they hit the big time it tends to last.

4. Understand that you're in vaudeville now. Sure, you can be the kind of writer who stays home and turns down interviews. Or you can be that brutally honest person who says what everyone's thinking on Twitter. Sounds good to me. But you know what doesn't sound good? A day job! I want my books to sell and for better or worse, a part of that today is showmanship. Learn to give a great presentation. Buy some decent clothes for events. Tweak your natural inclinations to develop a wittier, less offensive, public version of you. Create a character you can play when you have to go out in public. Not only can this sell books, it makes it hurt less when things go wrong. And it makes it all so much more fun.

5. Write what you want to write. Seems like the more books a writer sells the more people want to tell her (and maybe also him) what to do. "Sure, kid, that mystery was great, but if you really want to reach audiences you need to write a paranormal vampire thriller with the characters from Mad Men…" Well, that might be a great idea, and I'm not saying you should ever turn down a good job offer; if someone wants to give you fifty grand to write the Mad Men vampire saga, cash the check, write the book, and use a pen name. It could be something wonderful. That's the short-term game. But never stop doing what you want to do, first because you absolutely

have to or you will go crazy, and second because eventually, it'll sell.

The books that last aren't usually the books that people ask us to write. They're usually the books that sold two hundred copies on release and then went out of print for ten years. When Fitzgerald died his book were not, as commonly reported, out of print. They were sitting in the warehouse with no customers. On his deathbed, Jim Thompson told his kids: never sell my rights. That's the long-term game. Feed your soul first and the money will follow, even though it might take a while to catch up. In the meantime, enjoy the short-time game, too—it has its own charms.


6. Learn to love reading contracts. There's just no way around it. Find a way to make it interesting.

7. Have fun, and never forget how lucky you are. Old bitter folks like me like to complain, but you know what? I love this job. I have an editor I like and respect, a team I trust working on my books, I've made extraordinary friends and met fascinating people, and I just got a free trip across the country, during which my only obligation was to talk about myself incessantly. Sure, I've also been screwed every way possible, but that happens in other jobs, too—and besides, it was worth it. This job keeps you on your toes and never lets you forget that you're alive. And I get to play with imaginary friends all day—what other job can top that? Some people literally work in coal mines all day. Wow. I'll try to remember that the next time I complain about a late royalty check…

Ladies of Jungle Red? What advice do you have for the kids out there—or for me?

HANK: See what I mean? And we're giving away a copy of CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE CITY OF THE DEAD to a lucky commenter!

**************************************************

Sara Gran is the author of the novels Dope, Come Closer, Saturn’s Return to New York, and the Claire DeWitt series (HMH 2011). Her work has been published in over a dozen countries in nearly fifteen languages. Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Ms. Gran lived in Brooklyn until 2004. Since then she has traveled widely and lived throughout the US including Miami and New Orleans. She now resides in the state of California. Before making a living as a writer, Ms. Gran had many jobs, primarily with books, working at Manhattan bookstores like Shakespeare & Co, The Strand, and Housing Works, and selling used & rare books on her own. Visit Sara at www.saragran.com.

Sara Gran also blogs with the fabulous Megan Abbott here.

52 comments:

Tigress said...

The best writing advice that was given to me was "Know what you write."

"Write what you know." Not so much. There are so valid points on write what you know, only that it can be limiting. I like reading historical novels, and I am fairly certain that most if not all writers did not live through those time periods.

Anonymous said...

Help me, Sara! I found an agent after 20 years of trying. She placed two books in a series with a terrible publisher. They got tossed from MWA. They quit taking returns. They don't send me any statements, let alone commissions. The agent has been trying to move the series, with no luck. Now I have something new, something good. Do I give it to the old agent, or try to find a new one? I have advice all over the map on this. Dump that agent! Times are too tough, don't leave. What's your best guess?

Gram said...

I don't want to write, but I think the advice is good for anything in life.

edithmax said...

Being one of the 'kids' - as yet unpublished on the book level (although one is finished and is out there looking, and the second is half written) - I don't have any advice.

What I do know is that I keep writing because it makes me happy. Sure, it uses up all my 'free' time when I'm not at the day job. Sure, it causes me angst. Sure, it prevents me from cleaning the closets or learning to play the cello. But it makes me happy!

Thanks, Sara, for the great tips. Now you're on my list to read, too!

Edith
http://edithmaxwell.blogspot.com/

E. B. Davis said...

Strikes home to me that a writer must also be business savvy. The ins and outs of every industry are somewhat different. So, I guess it starts with the writing, then getting wet feet in the business, and learning. I'm on the first step and hope that I'll make it to the next step. Thanks for the advice!

Hallie Ephron said...

Flat out, this is some of the best advice I've seen anywhere on the writing life. I love: "develop a wittier, less offensive, public version of you." Amen.

I'd love a class in contract reading. I read them, as in the words run through my head. But I need a translator.

The one piece of advice I'd add is KEEP READING. Fiction, nonfiction, nourish your intellect with the words of others.

Cameron said...

As someone new to the publishing world, I'm thankful for any advice, tips, hints, etc. that I can get. I love the "Write what you want." Too often I've heard people say 'write ___', it's the hottest thing! But if you write something you aren't really excited about it shows. Great advice!!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey everyone...Wonderful advice, huh?

I guess I'd add--worrying doesn't help. You can worry every second of every day--or not--and exactly the same thing will happen. So why not be optimistic along the way?

You know how people say--you'll laugh about this some day? I guess I'd suggest: "Laugh sooner."

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

And for yesterday's contest for Anthony Amore's book--the winner is KRISTI! Email me via my website with your mailing address, Kristi!

Sheila Connolly said...

All excellent points, but I think the one about finding allies (aka friends) stands out. I don't know how writers in the pre-internet world managed to stay sane without a support group saying "you can do it". And the writers community is great about sharing business information that once would have been closely held by our publishers.

Liz V. said...

Would like to try Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and The City of The Dead.

Maryann Mercer said...

Thanks so much for the advice. I've only been tackling the writing craft for ten years...it seems forever sometimes..and the thing that keeps me going is the enjoyment I get from creating a quirky character and seeing what trouble they can get themselves into :o) Not published yet, but I always hope. And send queries...my one query to you is...any suggestions on the dreaded synopsis?

Pj Schott said...

I love this interview.

Rhys Bowen said...

Everything you said was so true, Sara. I couldn't stress more making friends with other writers. My writing career in mystery has been made more meaningful and fun by the good friends who are my biggest cheerleaders. We have the most wonderful camaraderie and I treasure my friends--fellow writers, editors and fans.

Pauline Alldred said...

All great advice but the trust no one stuck with me. I used to think, and perhaps still do, well, they are experts and know the business so how can I question that.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Pauline, I think that's such an interesting point!

There's a balance between accepting that people know their sutff--which so many do--and whether what they know is relevant and beneficial to YOU in any particular case.

Trust, but verify..someone once said that, right? Yes, I know, Reagan. But he had a point, if he was talking about book world. (Which he wasn't. :-))

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Gram, that's very wise!

Julia said...

Sara, given all the things we write about at this blog, I'm beginning to think our subheader ought to be "God, I'm old!"

I shared one of my best pieces of advice last night at dinner with Best-First-Anthony nominee Paul Doiron (name drop!):

I was once at a party with Douglas Preston (name drop no. 2!)and he was describing how he had arrived at a chain book store to sign, only to be greeted suspiciously by a 20-year-old clerk who told him to "stay at the desk" while he checked to see if they had any of his books.

"This was years ago, though, right?" I asked Doug. "I mean, you've been hitting the New York Times list since the 90s."

No, it was not years ago. It was for his current Preston-Child thriller.

"Julia," he said, "there's one thing you have to remember. For an author, the humiliation never ends."

Donnell said...

Wow, Sara, where have you been all our lives? This is wonderful advice! As one of the ones who has never stopped writing what she loves because she can't I so respect what you're saying. And yeah, we may have some bad apples in this industry, but there's a whole lot of good folks. Just look at Hank's recommendation to check you out! And for the record I was at a Paul Simon's concert once, and I admire the Dalai Lama... Does that count? Thank you for sharing!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Julia, I just burst out laughing! (Causing my producer to give me a weird look.)

So maybe we should change our tag line to "The Humiliation Never Ends."
LOVE IT!

It's at least a whole nother blog.

SalT said...

Re-posted the link on FB. Great advice for young and old. My favorite? 3. Find your allies.

Darlene Ryan said...

Great advice, Sara.

Julia, thank you for the Douglas Preston story. A few days ago a book store manager asked me if I'd written any "real books."

tjo said...

Re contract reading: I've learned the hard way to make sure you understand what you are reading and that it makes sense to you. And hire an attorney who specializes in literary contracts. I've had lawyers review contracts and then given terrible and costly (to me) advice. Just because they went to law school doesn't mean they understand the nuances of publishing, foreign rights, royalties,etc.
Name dropping: "as I was talking to Hallie last night about coming to the Pond on Sunday...." Best I can do right now.

Leslie Budewitz said...

"Real books?" Ouch, Darlene!

As I just spent the morning discussing my book launch with the publisher's publicity director, what most struck me was the advice to "develop a wittier, less offensive public version of yourself." Not sure there's enough time before September!

Seriously, great advice -- thanks!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Darlene, I rest my case. ! :-)

Sara Gran said...

Thanks everyone! Anonymous, sounds like you need a lawyer. that's one of those situations where having friends in the business pays off, because they can give you good advice. Sheila, it sucked before the internet! It was hard for all the writers to connect and meet each other, although we found ways.

Hank, I think your advice is the best--worry less!

Richard Thomas said...

Great stuff, Sara. And thanks for always being so kind as to take my emails and listen to my requests for blurbs and contributions to anthologies. You're one of the "nice ones" for sure. Oh, BTW, loved both DOPE and COME CLOSER.

Deborah Crombie said...

Sara, great advice! Especially #3. As I'm really OLD--have been doing this for almost twenty years--gulp, I think the best thing about this business is the friends you make and the sense of community among writers.

Julia, you made me spit tea out my nose! My best The Humiliation Never Ends story? Once I went in Heffer's Books in Cambridge (UK, not MA) where they had copies of my nice new hardcover on the shelf. I carried them to the register and asked the sales clerk if they would like me to sign the stock. Looking down his nose, he replied, "Madam, we do not allow customers to write in the books." I had to show him my driver's license . . .

Oh, and I'm working on the wittier, less offensive me. Maybe by next year . . .

morganalyx said...

Thanks for the great advice & tips! I like how she kept saying "it'll sell...eventually." Let's me know there's always reason to hope.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Still laughing, still laughing...but remember, you know, you have to get to a certain level even to HAVE a hardcover to be humiliated about! SO---I say, bring it on.

Loretta said...

I loved this:)...I would try and select one thing in particular, but all the points were valid, and worth referring to in the future. So,I've put this in my "info on writing file":)

Sara Gran said...

Oh, and I once met Paul Simon's brother!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Told you Sara was cool.

Shannon said...

In the "humiliation never ends" department: I did a book club on Friday evening and my ego soared as a few of the folks actually gushed. Monday morning had a review on Amazon that was 180 degrees from that high. Of course, I believe the reviewer!

Meb Bryant said...

Sara, You said, "Tweak your natural inclinations to develop a wittier, less offensive, public version of you." I'm working on my tweaker....

Michele Drier said...

#3, Find your Allies, is great advice. Writing is a solitary job and friends and allies (other writers a la Sisters or Guppies) are invaluable. They keep you sane, keep you focused and keep you laughing! Not easy tasks.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Shannnon--I bet every one of us would give you exactly the same advice about certain amazon reviews.

What do you think it is?

RIGHT. So ignore them!

Storyteller Mary said...

Good advice -- now I have to amend my "Be yourself, everyone else is taken" to "be yourself, but a wittier, kinder, more sparkling version for public appearances." Very interesting . . .

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

But it's true, though, that the wittier sparkling version is still you, right?

I'm also going for the thinner smarter multi-lingual math-savvy version, I mean, ::shrugging:: why not??

xoxo

Tammy said...

I am late to this party, but I'll add my thanks and "rolling on the floor laughing" comments. I'm appreciating the "keep laughing" and "worry less" right about now as I have to go finish pulling together the rest of my vaudeville outfit for my first big-stage performance.

I'm printing this list and posting it next to the sign that says "keep breathing." It helps so very much to know one isn't alone in all of this confusion and chaos and yes, joy, too.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yay, Tammy! You'll be fantastic. xoxoo

Jenny Carless said...

Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful advice. I think "write what you want" resonates most with me. I'm halfway through my first novel ... What finally got me going was writing about my passion: wildlife and going on safari in East Africa. Now, half the fun of writing is that I get to pretend I'm on safari almost every day!
-Jenny

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

The winner of Sara Gran's book is SalT! (Chosen by my dear husband's random number.)

Sal, email me with your address!
hryan at whdh dot com

Hurray!

Sara Gran said...

I see I forgot the most important piece of advice: don't read about yourself or your books on the internet! Ever! Just don't!

Thanks for a lovely day and all the great advice--hope to come back soon!

Marja McGraw said...

I liked everything you had to say, but two things in particular spoke to me. Make friends with other authors, which I have been doing and some are a real blessing to me. Secondly, you sound like you're having a lot of fun, and that's half the battle. I never had this much fun working a regular "day job", but writing is a whole 'nother life. Love it!

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