Jun 28 2010
Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. See in last week’s opinion piece about difficult protagonists by Barry Eisler, I wasn’t able to post a picture of the aforementioned hated hair, but today I can. Barry’s latest book will be in stores tomorrow. He says that it’s a romance, of sorts, complete with sex. I’ve informed him that one sex scene does not a romance writer make. He does, however, excel at writing a great political thriller. You be the judge.
Great to back at DearAuthor, and Jane, thanks for the invitation. No discussion of execrable book covers this time; instead, I'm going to briefly describe how I first got published, with an eye toward what lessons other writers might learn from my experience and apply to their own efforts
At the risk of stating the obvious, it bears pointing out that the first thing you need to do to get a novel published is- write a novel. I've said a lot about this before, particularly at my TEDx Tokyo talk, so for now, I'll just mention that in retrospect, I realize what gave birth to my first novel, Rain Fall, was a lifelong tendency to indulge certain passions of mine: forbidden knowledge, politics, judo, jazz, and Japan (where I was living when I started writing the book). Stories don't get catalyzed by the things that bore you; they quicken instead when you do the things you love. So if you want to write a story, or just avoid writer's block, I recommend finding a way to do the things that fascinate you, the things you love to do, the things you obsess over and that make the world go away. Those things are like coal being shovelled into the furnace of your imagination, and denying yourself those things is like denying your mind the nutrition it needs to thrive. For more thoughts on how to find the time, discipline, and structure to write a novel (hint: don't watch television), again, my TEDx Tokyo talk is a good resource.
Okay, fast forward: after about five years of on-again, off-again effort (I had a busy day job), I finished the first draft. I had no idea what to do with it, so I went to a bookstore and picked up a book on how to get your novel published. Apparently, I needed an agent. Okay- next up, The Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents. I identified the ones who handled thrillers, contacted them all in whatever manner each requested and, in short order-
Most were form letters, but a few had some helpful suggestions scribbled in the margins. A few had some really bad suggestions, one of which I still remember: "Try third person." That would have been a disaster for Rain Fall, leaching the story of the appeal of firsthand access to the mind of a ruthlessly competent but conflicted contract killer. I ignored the bad suggestions, considered the good ones, and did an extensive rewrite.
Eventually, a friend of a friend who worked at a publishing house suggested that I send the manuscript to a few agents with whom she worked, one of whom was Nat Sobel, who became my first agent. Nat saw promise in the early manuscript but knew it wasn't ready for prime time; he offered suggestions for improvement that were as extensive as they were excellent, and, about two years later, he judged the manuscript ready to go. At that point (this was autumn, 2001), the deals came fast and furious: first Sony's Village Books in Japan, then Penguin Putnam in the US, then eight foreign offers, all over the course of about two months, all two-book deals. I quit my day job and have been writing full time ever since-’a dream come true.
Let's pause here and consider what might be usefully learned from my experience.
If I could do things over, I would have tried to write more consistently. Spending months or even days away from a manuscript detaches the story from your unconscious. Conversely, working on a story every day lights a fire in your unconscious that becomes self-sustaining, igniting new story points even when you're not consciously working on the draft. So the on-again, off-again approach drastically inhibits your access to one of your most powerful storytelling assets: your unconscious, what I've heard Stephen King call "the boys in the basement."
I would also have read more how-to books. There are some excellent books on craft out there, and while I believe they're of secondary importance to actually writing and to learning to read like a writer, they can dramatically accelerate your mastery of craft. Anyone who tells you "but you can't teach art," by the way, is being glib. Of course art can't be taught, but teaching art isn't the point. The point is: all art is based on craft-’that is, on a body of techniques that can be taught to and learned by anyone with talent. Art is an expression of something unique to you and indeed, it can't be taught. But without craft, there is no art, because all art is based on craft. The truism that "art can't be taught" is an observation so pointless and irrelevant that I wonder how it continues as a meme. Maybe it makes artists feel more special, as though they've been chosen for unique dispensation by the magical writing muse. Maybe it comforts talented non-artists by freeing them of responsibility for their failure to study. Either way, it's silly and misleading and ought to be retired.
(On the subject of glib pronouncements inexplicably embraced unimpeded by critical thought: Frank Zappa is supposed to have said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I suppose this could be true, if the expressive, descriptive, and overall communication possibilities of dance were identical to those of the written word. Are they?)
(Another glib straw man argument, advanced not long ago by David Pogue, the NYT's technology columnist, is that we in the book biz need not be concerned about digital books because "E-book readers won't replace books." True, and the car hasn't replaced the horse and buggy-’you can still catch a carriage ride around Central Park, right? But this is probably scant comfort to the horse-based transportation economy, which was devastated by the advent of the automobile. The point isn't replacement; it is disruption, and anyone who tells you the functional equivalent of "firearms didn't really change warfare because after all the bow and arrow is still used at the archery range" is intellectually lazy or in denial or both.)
Sorry about the parentheticals- obviously, more coffee is in order. Anyway, there's no substitute for practice, true, but for any skill you're trying to learn-’a martial art, a language, a musical instrument, writing-’there's an optimal balance of practice and theory. In retrospect, I realize would have learned faster if I'd informed my practice with a little more theory, whether how-to books, writer's groups, conferences, or whatever.
One thing you shouldn't conclude from the fact that it was a friend of a friend who put me in touch with the guy who became my first agent is that it matters who you know in this business. That's a common misapprehension, born of wishful thinking. What matters is writing a great story. The literary agent's business model involves reviewing everything that comes in, so eventually I would have gotten to Nat, and his judgment would have been the same. Having someone steer me to him speeded things up for me, but that's all.
Remember, who you know might get a door opened for you, or get it opened a little sooner than you might have opened it on your own. But what happens on the other side of that door is entirely up to you. Manage your priorities accordingly (translation: Write. The. Book).
Another lesson: the truth of the adage, "Good writing is rewriting. Sometimes people are astonished when they learn that Rain Fall, the first novel I'd started, was also my first published. What they don't realize is that how much rewriting went into that manuscript-’for the amount I learned from it, it might as well have been my fifth manuscript, not, technically, my first. You have to be committed taking the time and expending the effort to develop your mastery of the craft-’the practice side of the practice/theory balance I mentioned earlier.
Maybe I should close with a few thoughts on what kept me going during the eight years between the first idea for the Rain Fall manuscript and the first sale of rights for the novel. That can be a long, lonely stretch: no contract, a busy day job, the distractions of everyday life, and no external reason to believe you have the talent or might have the luck to get published.
I think that, in life, there are things you can control and things you can't (or, to think of the whole thing as a continuum, there are things that are relatively amenable to your influence and things that are relatively unamenable). The things you're responsible for, and therefore the things that can be the source of legitimate pride or shame, are the ones you can control. If you want to be a writer, the thing you can almost totally control is finishing the book. Finding an agent, getting published- that all takes a certain amount of luck and timing and circumstances (although of course your hard work on what you can control will affect these less controllable factors, too). So my attitude was this: I wanted to be published, but if it didn't happen, I didn't want it to be my fault. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and say, "Okay, you didn't manage to get published, but you did everything you could to make it happen, you finished the book, so you've got nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to feel proud." That attitude-’the fear of one day feeling that if I didn't make it I might think it was my fault-’is what kept me going for many years with no external signs of success. Imagine how it'll feel if you don't get published and you know it was your fault-’and make sure not to let that happen to you.
I hope this was helpful-’and that you'll now get back to writing!