The often funny and yet always talented Phil Taylor was kind enough to let me stop by his blog, The Phil Factor, to talk about some of the dangers I didn’t anticipate when I first started out writing. Perhaps if I’d known, I might have done things differently.
I’ve turned off comments on this post and invite you to click the link below. I also encourage you to stick around after reading and check out Phil’s other posts too.
THE TOP 5 DANGERS OF BEING A WRITER by Allie Potts 1. Government Watch Lists: The Watch & Wand is set in a post-apocalyptic world where all but the most basic technology is outlawed. As a resul…
“Although golf was originally restricted to wealthy, overweight Protestants, today it’s open to anybody who owns hideous clothing.” – Dave Barry
We decided it was time to introduce LT to the salesperson’s staple, golf. Or at least we decided it was time to take him to the driving range. It is an outdoor activity, but one somewhat protected from the summer’s sun. Once there, Lamont placed a ball on the tee and handed LT a child-sized driver. The club might look like a putt-putt club that should consider laying off carbs for a while but it was nevertheless adorable in LT’s hands. Lamont then wrapped his own hands around LT’s and demonstrated proper form. Tap. The club connected sending the ball all of a foot or so. LT, emboldened by such a clear display of his natural talent, announced he no longer needed any additional parental support. “I do it myself.”
Lamont and I moved over to give LT enough space to continue to master his long game while we alternated taking some swings of our own in another stall with the supervision of our budding Rory McIlroy. “Is this right?” LT asked. The ball was on the rubber tee, but LT now gripped the club upside down. Not waiting for an answer, he swung shaft at the ball. Whiff. He swung again. The breeze created by the shaft as it passed was enough to knock the ball off the tee but not much farther.
“No honey. Hold it from this end.” I flipped the club over and handed it back to him. “See? Watch what Daddy does.” Lamont approached his own ball and sent it flying with a whack-ping. LT grinned as I returned the ball to the tee. He then proceeded to run toward the ball, swinging the club as a weapon, as if recreating a scene from the movie, Happy Gilmore. However, I should mention he also did so starting from the wrong direction.
I picked up the ball he’d been so kind to send my way (thankfully, he still has to work on the force of his follow through), depositing it once again in front of him. “No honey. Like this. Watch Mommy this time.” Tap. “Okay. You try.”
“Like this?” The club head was on the ground. His body faced the correct way. But… the flat face of the club head was now pointed away from the ball. Once again, he swung before I could stop him. Chaos theory was demonstrated in real-time as the driver’s curved back-end made contact with the ball. It is appropriate that LT’s age is four.
If you are now done groaning over my very creative segue, I am happy to report that I have entered into the back nine of my current manuscript’s draft in progress (actually I am further than that, but back five doesn’t exactly work with my metaphor). This means it is probably time to start considering giving it, at least, a working title beyond PGA2 (not to be confused with the Professional Golf Association).
According to publishing experts, the best titles contain no more than two or three ideas and include at least once PINC component: Promise, Intrigue, Need, or Content. They should also include precise nouns and/or action verbs and the best titles also make you think about their meaning once when you first see it on the cover and again when you finish the book. Finally, you want to make them stand out in their genre, but easy enough to remember (and be able to say) when it comes time for your reader to recommend a book to a friend. However, even when you follow the expert’s instructions, coming up with a good title is harder work than you might think.
The Fair & Foul’s original working title was Progressions of Titan. While I was writing, I thought it was a pretty great title. Less than three ideas? Check. Who or what was the Titan? Initial intrigue – check. My story contained characters who sought to be leaders of industry and improve the human condition only to become modern Titans in the mythic sense. Double meaning – check. Progression is development toward a more advanced state. Precise action verb – check. I performed several google searches and Amazon searches. No other similarly titled books were out there. Unique – check.
Then I said the title out loud to a room of my friends and family.
Always say the title out loud before you settle on it. I thought I’d understood the rules, however, the look on the faces, and awkward “er that’s nice”s of my impromptu focus group was proof enough that, much like LT and his golf swing, my title could benefit from a little more work. It took several more attempts, but eventually I found the one that stuck. Thinking I knew the rules wasn’t enough. I still had to practice.
You never know what you don’t know until you, at first, try.
Okay, so my headline is somewhat misleading. If you are attempting to write more than the occasional thank you note or note to the teacher about how very disappointed you were to learn of your normally charming daughter, Jenny’s decision to cut friend Mary’s hair in class, or why the teacher shouldn’t be alarmed when your son, Danny demands an extra seat at his desk for his imaginary friend, Mr. Hinklesworth, chances are your mind is already a little. . .well. . .off.
But according to my headline analyzer, “How to write with kids under 10 without losing more of your mind,” was considered too wordy.
1) Set boundaries
Set aside a little place in your world where you can go where you write uninterrupted. It is best if the only way to enter this place is by passing through a mystic portal accessed only by answering a series of three challenging questions administered by increasingly menacing figures, but I suppose any office, bedroom, or garden retreat or closet nook can do too. Just make sure that everyone knows that when mommy or daddy go to write they have effectively traveled to China (unless you already live in China in which case Kansas might do).
2) Actually enforce those boundaries
Children can sense when adults want to do something that doesn’t involve them and it drives them mad. The little buggers will let loose a type of wall piercing shriek the likes of which the Department of Defense would pay billions to develop. Fight the urge to leave your writing sanctuary with every ounce of willpower you possess. You are supposed to be in China/Kansas, remember. Besides, it can’t be all that bad. As long as they are screaming, at least you know they are still breathing, right?
3) Schedule your writing in realistic chunks that fit your lifestyle
Yeah, who am I kidding in that last tip? No mind can withstand more than a minute or two of that sort of mental assault before caving. But once you leave your sanctuary, it unlikely your little hellions cherubs will allow you go back anytime soon, so you might as well plan accordingly. If you thrive on two to three hours sleep, writing in the early morning or late at night may work for you, but for those of us who require a few more REM cycles, it is easier to break up a day’s writing goal into a few fifteen to thirty minute sessions per day and can be an absolute sanity saver. Another blogger, Sacha Black, introduced me to this tip, referring to these micro sessions as writing sprints. She has written up a helpful piece to help you determine what size sprint is best for you.
4) Cut your cable
Better yet, turn the TV off altogether, but if you are like me and still occasionally need to veg out, do it smart. While the EU limits the length of commercial interruptions to no more than twelve minutes per hour of programming in the US, commercials can make up about 30% or more of air time. As much as it pained me at first, I’ve stopped watching live TV. Thanks to streaming without commercials, I can watch my favorite hour-long show in forty-five minutes. (It’s magic!) I now have an extra fifteen minutes to write if I so choose. Sure, it means putting up with some delayed gratification and extra heavy spoiler evasion, but we all must make sacrifices for our art.
5) Keep your deadlines long and your notes close
Even with the best of intentions, you aren’t going to be able to hit your goal every day, even with micro-sessions. You’ll have summer break or have to deal with yet another round of the bug that’s so fun to share that everyone in the family gets a turn. These things happen. The thing to keep in mind is unless you were offered a contract, the only one who cares about your deadline is you (yes, I know – I have a hard time accepting this too. I am all twitchy just to write it). Sure you might disappoint a few fans by failing to deliver as quickly as they would like (cough. . .cough. . . George R. R. Martin, I am looking at you), but they aren’t exactly lighting up your phone with offers to babysit (for free) so that you can write in peace, now are they?
6) Back-up everything!
Say you do all of the above. The children are blissfully asleep. Even better, they’d gone down with hardly a fight. Your partner is off taking a run (or doing whatever it is he or she does when you go all writerly on them). The house is wonderfully quiet as you revise the third draft of your latest novel. Only a few more chapters to go. You are in the zone. Suddenly the cursor on your screen moves and an ‘a’ you know you didn’t type appears on the page. Then another. And another. Suddenly there is a whole line of ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas’. Panicked, you bang on the ESC key. The cursor blinks at you as if it is not only aware of your fright, it is amused. Then the whole room is blanketed in a bright blue light coming from your screen.
You feel like Darth Vader just told you he was your father. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Sounds horrible? Yes. It. Was. I was able to recover my file. That time. But thanks to the school system exposing the young to computer skills at a young age, I can no longer trust that my children won’t download a virus or click on a ransomware link. Heck, I can barely trust myself not to do that.
7) Remember why you started in the first place
Were you doing it for the money? The fame? The accolades? (If so, I’d love to see your marketing plan. Really – I would! Please contact me). Occasionally take a step back so that you can see how far you’ve already come. You can do this.
For my readers who are not writers, let me explain. You see a literary agent can seem much like a unicorn within the writing world. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one, the common belief is that they have the power to carry an inexperienced virgin writer to the doors of a major publishing house with a flick of their mane, and once there, they will have wishes like advances large enough to allow retirement from the day job bestowed upon them.
However, these magical creatures are elusive and prone to shy from abrupt noises or from anyone with less than the purest of hearts. And the quest itself isn’t without peril. Pretenders risk being torn to shreds by the unicorn’s horn and hooves, and that is assuming they find the real thing. There are plenty of other things out there that can destroy the would-be author’s dream, such as trolls hiding under coats of horsehide or fierce gatekeeper dragons.
The source of the unicorn myth likely stems from a misidentified oryx or ancient auroch, and a literary agent’s real powers are about as magical, but writers are dreamers. Over the last several months a few of my writer friends announced, with some trepidation, their intention to seek out potential agents. I understand their fear as I explored this option last year as well. Ultimately, I abandoned my search for reasons related to my goals for that specific project, but that didn’t prevent me from gaining some experience on the subject. So while I may not be in a position to advise on “how to” gain an agent, I thought I would, at least, share what I learned about “how not to.”
For those of you non-writer types reading this, the following tips can apply to job hunting as well. Just insert ‘resume’ for ‘manuscript’ and ‘potential employer’ for ‘agent’.
1. Send blanket queries to everyone in the phone book
Keep in mind that agents are salespeople and best salespeople are those who believe in a product they represent as much as they believe in making a dollar. Therefore, an agent who doesn’t enjoy gory horror isn’t going to appreciate your take on something like Saw. Save yourself some time, aggravation, and potential hope-crushing rejection by only querying those who are a) accepting unsolicited queries and b) into what you are into.
I had the most success looking for potential agents on Twitter. By reading their tweets, I was able to not only see what they were looking for but what kind of person they are as well. As a result, I was not only able to tailor my query letters to individual agents, but was able to rule out entire agencies where I didn’t see a good match.
In short, if you aren’t willing to take the time to get to know them, don’t expect them to take the time to get to know you. [update: If Twitter is not an option for you, alternatives like Mastodon, Discord, and Tumblr also have agents as active users]
2. Ignore the submission requirements
I haven’t stopped following agents on Twitter just because I didn’t sign with one. They have great tips and hint at what trends are selling (and where) which in turn helps me with my marketing. They also let me know about upcoming books to add to my to-be-read pile. However, just as often, they will bemoan about some would-be author who didn’t take the take to read their submission requirements.
Each agency’s requirements are different. Luckily figuring out what each agency needs to make a decision about your work is usually pretty simple. Go to their website and look for their rules. If a “Submission” link isn’t highly visible, it is a good indicator that they aren’t looking for new clients right now and you’d be better off searching elsewhere.
3. Submit an incomplete / unpolished manuscript
This one applies more to fiction than non-fiction.
You might be under the impression that you don’t need to polish your manuscript before submitting it to an interested agent because in addition to your big cash advance will come editorial services when they sell it to a publisher, so why spend the time/money now? This is a mistake. Apparently, no agent worth their commission has time to waste panning for gold with you. They are looking to sell ingots, not mud pies.
However, you can go ahead and start searching (better yet – networking) at any time. That contact you make a cocktail party, book fair, or conference might just remember you enough to spare your work a second glance when you finally are ready to get serious.
4. Protest their response
When my youngest starts to get tired, the rim of his eyes grow red and he tends to flop about on the floor, but the moment you try to pick him up to take him to his bedroom he will cry, kick, and scream about how not sleepy he is and every single time I will tell him that by acting the way he did, he just proved my point.
Agents aren’t going to be any more impressed with tantrums. If anything, you just firmed up their decision not to add you as a client.
5. Give Up
Of course, the best way to not sign with an agent is to simply give up. But Allie, aren’t you being a little hypocritical advising people not to give up when you admitted up top that you abandoned your own search last year? No. To be clear, I’m not advising one way or another.
Signing with an agent is not for every person or every project. At the end of the day, every writer has to decide what works for them and the project. But regardless of the outcome, I believe querying is something that should be at least tried. Querying helps define your audience, refine pitch, and practice networking and if you are lucky, you may just find a unicorn. Happy hunting.
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