Someone told me, about three published books into my career, that it was “unprofessional” to write “THE END” at the end of your manuscripts. That came as news to this professional writer, this writer who’d been paying all her bills with writing for several years. Not a single agent or editor had ever mentioned it to me, and when it disappeared during copyedits–well, so did the symbols I’d used to indicate page breaks and the formatting on my chapter headings.
Bottom line is, if “THE END” is considered a no-no, it’s not a make it or break it no-no. I promise you that not a single editor in the history of acquiring fiction has ever looked at a book and gone, “What a gorgeous piece of writing! What marvelous characters and splendorous plotting and expert pacing. This is a highly marketable work. Too bad they wrote ‘The End’ — REJECT.”
Which just goes to show you that writers are going to receive a lot of advice with words like “must” and “have to” and “never” attached to it — a lot of advice that tells you there is only one way to do things and you will never ever be published, never ever have a career as a writer, unless you do it like that.
And I’m here to tell you: Screw ’em.
There’s one rule: write. (Well, there’s two: “write well” — but that can get so wonky and eye-of-the-beholdery that I’m not even going to try to define it.) Everything else: what you write, how you write it, when you write it, how you market it, where you go with it — that’s all up to you. More than ever before, there is no “one” path (and even when I was starting out, pre-digital revolution, there were plenty of paths, and I didn’t get published until I figured out that the path I was being advised to take, even by well-meaning mentors, was not right for me).
The thing that works for you may be anathema to me, and vice versa. I may not even be aware of the thing that’s working for you. And that’s cool. There are many, many roads to get there.
Now, having said all that, I’m going to give you my top six bits of writing/publishing advice. (It was going to be five, because people like “top five” things, but what the hell. No rules, right? Besides, six is a “perfect” number according to the ancient Greeks.)
This is advice that has worked for me, and worked for me well. They may also be my favorite pieces of writing/publishing advice, you know, this week. Things change.
1. Get in late, get out early. I think this is Elmore Leonard. This is advice I always have to keep on the forefront of my mind, because I’m one of those writers who would otherwise be tempted to tell you the backstory of every character that pops up on screen, and would have seventy five epilogues about the main characters great great grandchildren and fourteen prologues explaining the entire political history of the world… the story is the story. Focus.
2. Keep secrets from your reader at your own peril. Writers are magicians. Our work is all about the reveal. Obviously, you start every story with a whole mess of secrets–the biggest one being, of course, what is going to happen–and when and where and how you reveal them is the whole point of the story. But you know what’s not the point of your story? Keeping the secret. If your work starts to become about the secret instead of the story, people get bored (Note to M. Night Shyamalan). If you take too long getting there, people get annoyed. This goes double when it’s the narrative host (i.e., POV character) who is keeping the secret. Nothing makes me put a book down faster than the POV character who keeps very obviously NOT telling the reader what is driving him/her. Can it be done well? Sure. I liked The Sixth Sense and Speak. But ninety nine times out of a hundred, if your character is keeping a secret, they can probably trust the reader. Remember the advice of Hitchcock: suspense is what happens when the viewer knows there’s a bomb under the cafe table, even if the characters don’t.
3. When writer’s block strikes, it means you’re making a mistake. Back up to the last part you loved and try again. Unlike HelenKay, I do believe in writer’s block. I think it’s our subconscious telling us something we’re doing isn’t working. Maybe it’s a plot point, or a character choice — sometimes it’s even been a character name. But when I hit the impassable mud of writer’s block, I know there’s no choice for it but to back up and try another, drier, road.
4. Write for your reader. I am about to blow your mind: people are going to hate your work. You cannot please all of the readers all of the time, and trying to is a losing battle. In this day and age of Amazon and book blogs and Goodreads, you’re going to run into all types of readers, and they all have a different idea of what makes a book good. My last book, which generally got the best reviews of my career, also got plenty of readers who hated the very parts that other readers said it made their favorite book of all time. Some people aren’t into the very thing that made you want to write the book in the first place (::coughcough:: killer unicorns). And there’s nothing you can do about that. Write for your reader. Write the hell out of what you do best for the reader who loves that very thing. There are more of them than you think. And, connected: Write for your reader. You are trying to entertain them. There’s nothing wrong with giving them what they want.
4. Protect the Work. In this day and age of Amazon and book blogs and Goodreads and people tweeting reviews directly into your inbox that they claim are not for you, you really can’t avoid seeing what people are saying about your book. Lots of people. And you know what they say about too many cooks. We’re living in an age where readers are far more involved in your day to day process, where consumers are reading ARCs and you are expected to discuss intimate aspects of your career choices on Facebook. Option one: pull a J.D. Salinger (or Suzanne Collins — didn’t hurt her sales). Option two: Grow the kind of tough protective covering that would make Emma Frost jealous. I try a combination of the two. Keeping in mind my reader (see number 3), I let the haters hate, and ignore them. I have stopped reading blogs that use authors as punching bags to boost their readership and egos. I also keep some things private. It doesn’t help me creatively, to talk about my work online before I’m done. I’ve even kept my agent and publisher from announcing deals until I was ready before. The speculation and uninformed opining –even if well-meant–is really distracting. But I’m still working on a balance. Find out what works for you, keeping in mind that the bottom line is the work. Not the promo, not the blogging, not the twitter. Protect the work. the work is all that matters, even online.
5. Your career is not this book. Your career is your career. It’s far too easy, especially for beginning writers, to work endlessly on a project that isn’t going anywhere. Your career is about more than one book, Hopefully, it’ll be about fifty. So if a project isn’t selling, set it aside for now and work on something new. You aren’t putting it away forever. You are loving your career. And for us established types, it means sometimes admitting that we need to try something new — new genre, new series, new house. Our career is about our career. The work will be there. Nothing is ever wasted.
Thank you to all of my fellow Genreality bloggers, especially to Sasha for working so hard on this blog and for inviting me to be a part of it.
Go. Write. Win.