Today I read a blog where agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown is running a contest so his readers can be an agent for a day. He got the idea from the way people were commenting about agent responses. I thought the contest was an interesting idea, and it got me to thinking. The grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, doesn’t it?
That green grass metaphor brings to mind the concept of published authors versus unpublished. I’ve been both, and as an unpublished author I dreamed of the day when I would sell my first book. The validation I would get from that. A sale from a real publisher would say to the world, “Yes, you can write!” As an unpublished writer I could write what moved me without worrying about the marketing aspect. I could take as long as I wanted. I could get lost in the story. Green grass, truly. But the down side? The part where the grass starts to get kind of yellow? People didn’t consider me a “real writer” because I wasn’t published. I still had to prove myself.
On January 26, 1998 at around 4pm I sold my first book to Micki Nuding at Avon Books. The manuscript had been an RWA Golden Heart finalist, and I had approached Micki at the 1997 RWA conference in Orlando to pitch the book. She asked me to send her a proposal. A couple of months later she called and requested the full manuscript (and was still laughing on the answering machine message—she really liked my funny pirate drama). Then in early January 1998 she called to tell me that she had sent my manuscript to her senior editor to read but the carrier had lost my manuscript (the package came open) and could I send another one?
No brainer there. I sent off another one with fingers crossed, since sending it to the senior editor means she might want to buy it. Then she called me on January 26 to offer for the book. And that quickly, I went from being unpublished to published.
But I didn’t know what was in store for me as a published author. Your life as a writer changes. The validation is wonderful and the money sure doesn’t hurt, but then you are swept up into the business of publishing. Suddenly there are revisions, page proofs, cover art, royalty statements, and option books. You have to learn all of this language and go through the stages of production that turn a manuscript into a finished book that can be sold in stores.
You have to do revisions based on your editor’s comments (you can call your editor to discuss the changes she wants if you disagree or have questions). You have to STET the copyeditor’s remarks that you disagree with (this means telling the printer to ignore those changes), and you have to read your book again in page proof format to look for typos or errors (you are limited to fifty changes in the whole book because more than that costs money to fix). You have to hope when you open up that envelope or email containing your cover art that everyone’s hair color is right. And that first royalty statement? Good luck if you can understand all the numbers and jargon! (Royalty statements are famous for being hard to understand). This is a lot of stuff, but my grass is still green. Maybe a little trampled…
And then there’s the option book. Now that your first book is in the works, you need to start talking with your editor about what your next book is going to be. And when you are going to turn it in. Is six months enough time?
Here’s where that green grass starts turning kind of yellow. Six months? It took me six YEARS to write, polish and sell my first book. But in commercial fiction, no publisher is going to wait another six years for a manuscript. There are lots of writers out there. The publisher liked your work, but they can always buy another writer’s manuscript to fill the slot if you can’t write another book within the next twelve months or so.
Fill the slot. How coolly businesslike. As if your work, your opus, your singularly individual creation is just a product. But it is. This is a business, and there is always another writer standing in the wings, longing for the shot to become a published author. The writing game becomes about sales figures and sell-throughs and bestseller lists. It can be very easy to get caught up in all that. Very easy to get discouraged, to lose sight of that fire inside you that needed to write to begin with. Very easy for that green grass to turn brown.
So you need to balance. Yes, you need to pay attention to the business end. You signed a contract and you have to deliver. You need to perform all the tasks involved in producing that book. But when you negotiate your delivery dates (a.k.a. deadlines), take into account the amount of time you need to produce a good book. You need to learn this to survive in the business, to continue to be published. How long does it take you to write a book? How much down time do you need between books? You MUST take that time to refill the creative well. If you don’t, you will end up staring at a blank screen wondering why you ever thought you could write.
And finding yourself here is where the grass becomes not just brown but completely dried up.
Yes, I can tell people that I am a published writer—even though they still ask me where they can find my book, as if I sell them out of the trunk of my car. But there is a part of me that longs for the freedom that came with being unpublished. To take as long as I wanted to work on an idea. To go weeks without writing if I wanted to. To write whatever weird thing I wanted without worrying about how to go about marketing it.
But I’m hooked now. I’ve sold thirteen books to Avon. I can’t stop, even if I wanted to. The drive is still there, the need to tell that story. The need to keep that validation, to be successful. To not fail in doing what my soul compels me to do.
So the trick is to tell the stories I want to—but make them marketable. Take the time I need to write the book—but keep it within a reasonable timeframe for the publisher. And most importantly, when I am doing the actual writing—the part where I wake up at 6am to write for an hour before having to leave for work—I don’t think about the marketing. I don’t think about the deadline. I am lost in the story. I am once again that organic writer, feeding that storytelling flame.
And that is where the grass is always green.