Yeah, I'm going to disparage the mainscream, uh, mainstream publishing industry again. Surprise, right? But you have to admit, they've got it coming. Again.
True, I have not been approached by any mainstream publishers. But before you go sniffing around for sour grapes, amigos, let me remind you I've never approached them either. I'm not reacting to rejection letters … I'm sending one.
I'll lay it out for you. Writers can write, even thrive, artistically, without publishers. Writing is a noble endeavor in and of itself. But what can publishers do without writers? Sell apples on street corners, that's what. So why are we artists turning cartwheels and displaying our pretty pansied panties just to get their attention? Why aren't they groveling before us? Okay, maybe 'grovel' is too much. How do you feel about 'kowtow'?
We're the writers. We provide the product. We create the content. We should wield all the power, right? So, why are we letting publishers make us do all the work they traditionally get paid for? Why have they shifted their burden onto our shoulders? Why isn't this shift in responsibilities reflected in royalty schedules? I'll tell you why. We're plum stupider than publishers. Harsh, maybe. But where I come from, if the shoe fits, we put it on.
Today, publishers will only accept a manuscript that is 'publication ready'--because they fired all their editors so they can make more money. Today, publishers require us to do much of our own promoting--in advance--because they've lopped off their own marketing arms so they can make more money. Think I'm exaggerating? Does anyone believe Ernest Hemingway would get published today if he didn't already have a robust Facebook presence? In a pig's ocular organ.
For my money, publishing houses have ceased the practice of publishing. At best, they've become disinterested printers with attitudes of entitlement. Put another way, they're lazy and greedy scoundrels. No, I amend that statement. Lazier. Greedier.
Publishers used to perform a trusted public service. They combed through the influx. They identified, nurtured, and encouraged burgeoning talent. They proudly preened and presented their best prospects to the American public. Houses actually competed for the rights to publish unknown authors--based on little more than a whiff of talent and a hunch. But those days are long gone.
Oh, I don't mean to discourage you from seeking publication. Actually, my intention is quite the opposite. Write. But don't write for the James Patterson Novel Manufacturing Company, or any of that ilk. If a publisher expects you to write, but tells you your name will appear under someone else's, grow a bronze pair and put them on vivid display. No one pays attention to the second name, dammit. And, based on my reading, nor should they. Of course, if you can't write rings around James Patterson and play a sitar raga at the same time, 'second name' might be all you should aspire to.
Publisher-chasing has evolved into something akin to ambulance-chasing. Someone is bound to emerge bloodied. Rarely, is it the ambulance.
Sadly, I can't endorse the 'self-publishing' route, either. In my experience, the best and the brightest don't self-publish--but everyone else does. Jump into that quagmire at your own peril.
Yeah, I'm a font of good cheer, ain't I? Surprise.
Will the protagonist win his/her love interest? Will the six-year-old save the world from alien attack? Will the teenager find refuge from the bully? Despite these possibly riveting conflicts, if the reader doesn't care about your characters, their ensuing tribulations are wasted.
How does one create a character who connects with the reader? Dump the cardboard placeholder and breathe some life into him. Make him a distinct individual. How?
Give your character a meaningful appearance. Does the yearning young lover have a monumental case of stress-induced acne that’s undermining his self-confidence and keeping him from attaining his stress-relieving goal? Is the space aliens’ nemesis a runt with coke-bottle glasses? Does the bullied teenage girl dress “funny” for a reason no one in school knows about?
If you’re good at writing dialect, use it to make your character’s voice distinctive. South Boston, Cajun, Aussie … they all work. Caution: if you don’t have a linguist’s (or musician’s) ear for phonics and cadence, write your dialog straight. Poorly, or overwritten, dialect is a turn-off.
Your character’s personality and behavior should have some quirks. Maybe your thug quotes (or misquotes) Shakespeare or Kant in a Southie brogue. If you make him an individual, he’ll garner interest and be remembered. Attitude and quirkiness are within reach of every observant writer and are sure winners.
Give your character strengths and weaknesses that matter to the story. Each protagonist must solve his own conflict. Some give lots of thought to the problem. Some meet it head-on with force. And some just stumble completely unwittingly upon a solution that works. Take the little six-year-old runt and the space alien. Perhaps the child is showing his new “friend” how he can burn a dry leaf with his eyeglass lens when he accidentally blows up the space ship. Can’t happen? Think about it. Maybe it can.
A character who connects with the reader—even an arch-villain—will instantly involve the reader in your story. Build a whole stable of them. No major character should be bland. And while strong characters won’t make up for a painfully thin plot or no conflict, they will definitely draw your readers eagerly on to your satisfying resolution.
Some days I’ll do anything to keep from writing. Even bathe the dogs that don’t like to be bathed. Even walk these dogs which they like, but I don’t overly much because I have to take along little plastic bags to scoop the poop up, which requires bending over, and I am lazy-stiff. I am sloppy too; yet, I‘d rather find my latest mission from Flylady and be directed in the missive to de-clutter my messy desk for fifteen minutes – just to avoid writing. Of course, there’s laundry to do. Always that. Don’t I need to run to the grocery store even though my pantry has enough stuff to survive Armageddon? Anorexia won’t claim me as a victim. Tumbling overstuffed pantry shelves will first.
I have a stack of books I need to read to keep up with what is selling, and then there are the craft magazines I should peruse so that I can master this pastime which I want to become a paying avocation. Of course, I also have my son’s wedding to work on, followed by my daughter’s a couple of months later. That involves composing engagement announcements, guest lists, checking out bands on the internet for the reception and scoping out hotels for guests, which reminds me: I’d better Google Crane Stationery because that is what is used for wedding invitations. Of course, I have an aged aunt to phone and friends whom I need to contact. And I need to shop for mother-of-the groom and mother-of-the bride gowns! Oh yes, airline tickets. Just now, as I gaze out the window, I see shrubs to be pruned and panes to be Windexed and, my-oh-my, just making a to-do list seems to be about all the writing I can get done for one day. Trash needs to exit the house and pups again need to find a sunny patch of grass to do their business, and isn’t there a program I love to watch tonight after I keep up with the news? Guess writing my opus will have to wait for tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” said a famous heroine, Scarlet O Hara, and look how much she accomplished!
Perhaps there are zillions of great stories that never get recorded because a writer’s mind hops from one tangent to another. How many of us are wannabe writers who attend writing workshops and conferences and have the best of intentions? Who hasn’t heard a fellow scribe critique a book claiming it mediocre at best? Why are some merely so -so tales preserved? It’s not always the quality of the story line which determines who becomes a published writer and who remains the unknown Emily. The tales that get read are penned by those folks who don’t delay, don’t make excuses, don’t clutter their lives with a thousand other things to do first, but instead they sit in the chair and plug away. They write first, and everything else comes second. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, never today, that’s what all the lazy people say” was a favorite maxim of my German grandparents.
Yet, I believe the reason many creative wordsmiths don’t write habitually is more complicated than being “lazy.” I think it is a stagnant folio of fear of failure, fear of success, not knowing where to begin to submit, not knowing if it’s worth the time, being risk adverse, etc. A psychologist most likely can give a slew of reasons why folks fail to give themselves the gift of doing something they really want to do.
Sometimes, it is that first baby step one must take. Personally, my two cents worth of advice is this: The first attempt at writing should be signing a check for a subscription to a writers’ magazine. Maybe that first subscription should be to Page & Spine. How’s that for a plug?
Page & Spine does not sell subscriptions, but we do gratefully accept contributions which go to pay our writers in this all-volunteer undertaking.- ed.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.