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My First Sale by Barry Eisler

Barry EislerWelcome 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.

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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-

Fifty rejections.

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.

Inside Out by Barry EislerEventually, 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!

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

14 Comments

  1. Bernita
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 04:53:03

    “…art is based on craft… 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.”
    Thank you especially for that.
    Though any comparison is laughable, my (first) novel also debuts today and my own experience confirms what you say absolutely.

    ReplyReply

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    Jun 28, 2010 @ 05:12:06

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  3. Terry Odell
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 06:40:20

    Study your craft. Write a good book. Never Give up. Very good advice.

    ReplyReply

  4. Joanna Terrero
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 07:11:53

    Barry, thanks for sharing this.

    Gosh! Fifty rejections. It's great that you got your HEA.

    I love your comments about e-books too.

    “Good writing is rewriting.” That's so cool! Now, I can go back to my eleventh *ahem* final draft without guilt.

    Thanks again.

    ReplyReply

  5. Gennita Low
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 07:14:30

    @Terry Odell: And never cut that hair. ;-) (Kidding).

    Barry, perseverence and perseverence (and in my case, perspiration) were also part of my experience. Thanks for sharing yours.

    ReplyReply

  6. Gennita Low
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 07:18:36

    Sigh. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to edit. My whole screen just goes dark and I can’t do anything to the box, Jane.

    Anyway, I meant to write “perseverence and PERSISTENCE.” And obviously, lots of caffeinessence.

    ReplyReply

  7. 16gb micro sd
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 07:22:05

    Wow, this looks really superb book. I had read your whole article and it’s very nice to know about this. Congratulation to you. I am surely gonna read this as soon as possible.

    ReplyReply

  8. Barry Eisler
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 09:54:28

    Thanks, everyone, and thanks Jane for the invitation to post here. Perseverance and perseverance is a pretty good motto, I think…

    ReplyReply

  9. katiebabs
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 09:56:02

    Awesome first sale story. 50 rejections seems to be a right of passage for most writers trying to find agents.

    Congrats on the latest release!

    ReplyReply

  10. Deb
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 10:14:57

    I think we all have a story to tell. Some will pursue writing as a hobby. Others will work it, take classes, workshops, etc. and hone the craft.

    I read a book yesterday, a first novel from an author and publisher I hadn’t heard of. The synopsis indicated interesting characters and plot. As I said, first novel. Lots of exposition, info dump, characters were essentially flat. It really needed a heavy editing. Seriously heavy editing. This book had 3 epilogues. The 3rd was a lead-in for the next in a series. It was like a ShamWow commercial: “But wait, there’s more!”

    Once this author really hones the craft, I think her books will shine.

    Or, we can all drop some acid and say Wow Man.

    ReplyReply

  11. Cecilia Grant
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 10:55:21

    This right here is some beautiful, clear-eyed writing about writing. If Eisler ever decides to write a craft/career-advice book, I will buy it.

    ReplyReply

  12. Janine
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 12:23:19

    I loved this first sale story. Off to look at the links you posted!

    ReplyReply

  13. Carolyn Jewel
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 15:51:35

    The only problem with not watching TV is when everyone else is talking about some show, all you can do is say, uh…. And then think about all the writing you got done instead. Heh.

    I’m glad you persevered because I really enjoy your books, by the way.

    ReplyReply

  14. Lorraine Nelson
    Jun 28, 2010 @ 17:51:51

    Excellent article, Barry!

    I received eleven rejections in one year followed by four full requests in one month…two in one day! Then I was up to my neck in revisions but it looks like (fingers crossed here) one is finally sold.

    I persevere because I need to. The characters won’t leave me alone otherwise. lol

    Best of luck in your career. Thanks for posting.

    ReplyReply

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