In 2011, I was a guest lecturer for a UCLA Extension writing class. Following is the transcript of questions I answered about writing, editing, and publication.
Q. Is it smart to start thinking about what genre the novel I’m writing would fit into now, as I’m writing it? I just want to write the book the way I want to write it but I keep hearing that I should know where my book is going to sit on the bookshelf. What should I do?
A. I believe firmly in writing the book the way you want to write it first, and here’s why:
- your creative energy is always better when you’re listening to yourself and not to anyone else;
- the marketplace is always changing so if you try to write for a specific market or genre now, by the time your manuscript gets published, it could be a very different ball game; and
- sometimes you don’t know exactly what it is that you have written until you’ve written it.
Everybody’s process is different, of course, and it may help you to be reading other books in the genre you think your book is in while you’re working on your manuscript. I personally find this distracting, especially when I’m still getting to know my characters and don’t know for certain where the story is going, but I have other author friends who are encouraged by this. If you are more in the latter category, I would recommend reading books that you enjoy, regardless of genre, because like I mentioned earlier, you may start out writing one thing and end up with another.
So write the story you want to write, and don’t worry about positioning your book until you are done. When you get to that point (and I mean completely done, THE END and all that), do a few more self-edits and then take a good, hard look at it. Browse the bookshelves at your local bookstore or library and see what people are reading. Determine what genre your book falls into, research agents that represent those genres, learn how to put together an amazing query package, and go for it. Good luck!
Q. Can you tell me how long it took you to finish, revise and publish your first novel?
A. It took me four to six months to finish and revise Good Things, my first novel that was published by Berkley Books (Penguin USA) under the name Mia King. It took me six months to find an agent, then a year for her to find a publisher, then 18 months to publication. So about two and a half years.
With your subsequent books, the process is much faster because you already have an agent, a publisher, and they know you can finish a novel and meet a deadline. The publication time then shrinks to about a year, but any shorter that that isn’t good because there’s not enough lead time for the sales team to build up interest in your book.
Q. How essential it is for writers to network to get their work noticed? How do you find your audience/readers? Any advice to us on how to get started doing this even before we are published?
A. I honestly think the best thing you can do is write the best novel you can. Networking is only useful to the extent that you have a marketable manuscript. I don’t recommend putting any energy in that direction until your novel is done, edited, and ready to be shown. If you’ve done the hard work and have made it the absolute best, most perfectly polished manuscript you can write, and you’ve received feedback from helpful and objective readers (friends, your local librarian, people you’ve met through this program) that it’s very good (not that you have to listen to everyone, but feedback is important), then work VERY hard on your query package and start sending it out to agents. If you like, go to a writer’s conference or two and do some agent sessions and see if you can get them to look at your work.
>> Note 2/13/14: The world of publication–and my own view–has changed. Lit agents and traditional publishers are one path, but not the only path, and sometimes not even the best path even if you get an offer. I’m leaving my UCLA talk here for reference, but know that there has been a big shift, for me and other authors, with respect to how we are advancing our careers and getting the word out about our work. The bottom line is that the indie path or a hybrid of the two should be seriously considered for a number of factors, including readership, content control, and $$$.
One of the hardest things for any fiction author–self-published or traditionally published–is that readers don’t know how to find them. So while there are certainly things you can do to reach out to potential readers, it won’t be nearly enough to sell the kind of numbers you need to sell in order to make your publisher happy. Instead, write the best book you can, get a great agent who will help you get a great publisher, and let the publisher put the book into the hands of the reader. At that point it does help to connect with readers who reach out to you, to support your local booksellers in promoting your book, to give your publisher whatever support they need to help sell your book. Just as important is to keep writing: writing (and finishing) your next book gives more people a chance to fall in love with your writing and your characters.
There are lots of bestselling authors who have zero online presence and their titles sell regardless, just as there are lots of authors who have a strong online presence but only have moderate sales. The most important thing is your book, so give it all you’ve got and then let it lead you to the next step.
Q. How do you know that you are on the right track and that you shouldn’t give up and become an accountant?
A. Hmm, interesting question since I spent a good chunk of my corporate career with Price Waterhouse, an accounting firm!
I wish I could tell you that it gets easier, and that you get more confidence with each book that publishes, but you don’t, because it’s never just about publication itself, but our own inner work (I know … I see the eyeball roll!). Friendship Bread sold at auction last March and for the first couple of months after I still scanned Craigslist and the newspaper for part-time jobs. Self-doubt, it seems, is part of the job description of a writer.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m trying to change that thinking in myself. How do you know if you’re on the right track? If you have to ask the question, you’re probably on the right track. That’s the kind of question the negative mind loves to ask when you’re getting close to trusting yourself more, the “practical” question that it assumes your creative self has failed to consider. This is where you have to turn down the volume in your brain and turn up the volume in your heart. What do YOU feel? Do you feel that it’s good? Do you think you should continue? This is not a question for anybody other than YOU.
Publication is tricky because we assume “they” know better than us. But this isn’t necessarily true — as I was talking to different editors at top publishing houses about Friendship Bread, they all had a different take on it. Mind you, these are brilliant editors who have worked with famous authors you have most likely read. But there was no perfect consensus. Who was right? Who was wrong? The answer: no one. They all just had their own opinion.
So the only person you can ask that question to is you. Are you on the right track? Should you give up and become an accountant?
You tell me.
Q. Do you frequently have to deal with pressure from editors or your agent to make changes to your writing that you would prefer not to, and if so, how do you deal with these challenges?
A. I’m going to give you the short and sweet answer first: you deal with any challenge in this business (the business of writing) as you would anything else in life. Have faith that you will find a creative solution, because you will!
My own personal experience in the business has been very positive — I’ve never been asked to make a change I didn’t agree with, and every change I’ve been asked to consider has made the novel better as a result. I don’t say yes to everything, but I do listen to everything, because you never know if a better idea may spark from it. It’s your job as the writer to consider the possibilities — sometimes we can get stuck with what we think should happen and it takes another person who’s objectively following the character to suggest something different.
Remember, too, that even if you are asked to make a change, it’s up to you how to integrate it. I do not know of anyone who has been asked to change something they were vehemently against. In all likelihood the publisher or agent wouldn’t have said yes to you if there was a big conflict on the page like that. And remember, too, that you can always say no. This is a much more collaborative effort than people may realize.
I’ll leave you with this: try not to take anything too personally when it comes to the business of writing. Everyone is just trying to figure out the best way to make your book as good as it can be, and some way will be right, and some not. Just take it and consider it, then make your decision. Good luck!
Q. How do you know when your manuscript is finished and do you ever look at your books now and think ‘I should have changed that?’
A. I’m sure the answer is different for everyone, but for me, I can just feel it. I know you know what I’m talking about … even if you haven’t experienced it yet in your writing, I know you’ve experienced it in other areas of your life. You just know.
Now that’s not to say that there aren’t things that you’ll continue to tweak or even change, or have moments of huge doubt or be tempted to throw the whole thing in the trash, but when that all passes and the dust settles, you’ll just be like, “You know, it’s 99% there.” Your agent or editor may disagree, but you’ll know. It doesn’t mean you won’t do more work on it, but you’ll feel it when you’ve done what you’re supposed to do with it. I’m not talking about that first completed draft, which is a huge sense of accomplishment, but the feeling that happens after you’ve edited and polished your manuscript to the best of your ability. This is not the same as being sick and tired of working on it and just wanting to get it over with (which may also happen), but there’s a sense of restfulness, for a moment anyway.
There are certainly things I would change in the books I’ve already had published — I don’t know if that ever goes away. But there’s finished and there’s finished, and the more you write, the more you’ll get a sense of this. If you find yourself struggling with it, I’d suggest entering short story competitions so you can get used to experiencing this feeling. It may never be a sure thing (we writers can be slightly insecure, *cough*), but you’ll get better at telling the difference. Good luck!
Q. Do you have a group that acts as a critique group and, if so, how did you find them?
A. Thank you for your question! I am a lone writer — I don’t do critique groups, never have. I have been in creative writing groups that foster thoughtful and considerate feedback (meaning that you say what you like, what worked, and what you want more of rather than what you didn’t like, where you were confused, etc etc) and I teach my creative writing classes (not novel writing, which I don’t teach for this exact reason) that same way.
I think there is value in both and also harm in both. Every person is different so of course you must find what works for you, but I have always felt strongly that the editorial feedback you need to cultivate the most is your own.
When you’re your own best critic, you can look objectively at your writing and make the best decisions for it. I find writing by consensus both time consuming and stressful.
That being said, I do have people read my work. My husband is always my first reader, even though he is not my target market, and then my friend Nancy (who is a reader, not a writer) and then 1-2 writer friends. But because my writer friends are often busy with projects of their own, I’m okay to not send work to them and just do what I can on my own. Usually I’ll get to the place where I feel my work humming, and even if it’s not perfect and still needs work, I know I’m on the right track.
If you’re new to writing and publishing, and feeling either uncertain about your work or not getting the agent or publisher contracts, then a group may be of very good use. For one, if you don’t have the right people giving you feedback, you may not be able to see the areas where your writing needs more work. Critique groups are helpful in that you are getting different feedback from different readers and writers, and they are looking at your work objectively (well, to the best of their ability, anyway).
If you think you would benefit from a group, I would ask your local bookstore if they know of any writing groups. You may want to take a writing class in your area where you can meet other writers. Attending a writer’s conference may help, too. If you congregate where the readers and writers are, chances are you’ll find a group. If not, start your own! Meet in a neutral space, like a coffeehouse. There are lots of websites that give you guidelines for starting your own group and you should have them in place before you start. There are online critique groups, too. If you have 3 people, including yourself, you’re good to go.
Q. I have been working on my story for more than a year now I don’t where it is going. I’m frustrated that feel like I’m stuck and making no progress. Any suggestions?
A. I feel for you, sweetie, because I know how hard it can be. Which is why I’m about to say what I’m about to say.
If you’ve been working on a piece for a long time and you’re feeling stuck, STOP. Just stop. Just print out the manuscript, save the file on a jump drive, tie it all up with a really nice ribbon, and put it on the shelf and out of your mind.
Then start something new.
One of two things will happen: one, you’ll remember why you love writing again as you barrel towards a new story that doesn’t have all the same emotional trappings as the last one. Everything is up for grabs; anything is possible. You don’t have to worry about fixing stuff that’s broken (and possibly irreparable). Spend a day observing people walking by, use a writer’s prompt, anything. Try not to write that next book you’ve been waiting to write as soon as you finish this book. Start fresh.
The other thing that could happen is that as you start to work on something new, you’ll start to see what you need to do with the first manuscript. You’ll see what was working and what wasn’t. You can decide to go back and fix it or wait a little longer. Sometimes those first stories aren’t meant to go out. Mine still hasn’t. But they serve a purpose, sort of a shakedown of all the writing stuff you think you have to do or that you’re really attached to. It’s not to say you won’t publish that story in the future — it’s just saying that right now, for whatever reason, it’s not moving forward and you’ve spend a lot of time in this place. Ask yourself if you want to stay there (because you certainly can and we can have this exact same conversation next year), or are you going to move to a place that feels better and reminds you about why you started writing in the first place?
The funny thing is that when your writing is stuck, the thing that unsticks you is more writing. But sometimes you need to shift gears or kill the engine altogether and start over. If you need inspiration, start reading again. If you’re sick of looking at words on the page, watch movies. LOTS of them. Eventually you’ll feel yourself rev up again, ready to hit the road and start writing again.
Q. I’m struggling with writing my first YA novel and I was wondering about your creative process. How do you keep up the creative flow?
A. Before I get into the creative process (mine, at least), I’d suggest taking a look at your novel and asking yourself three questions:
- Who is your protagonist?
- What do they want?
- Who’s preventing him/her from getting it?
It’s basic, but it’s all there in those three questions.
One of my favorite writing books is called The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. That may help you look at your manuscript and figure out what’s not working.
Sometimes, too, it helps to look at what is working. Then take that piece out and start from there.
As far as my creative process goes, I don’t see it as anything separate from my life or who I am. This goes for you (for all of you!), too. We’re creative beings — we’re born this way. We don’t lose it despite what some people say — we just get trained to turn our attention elsewhere. The way to get back into your creative mind is to turn your attention to the things that you love and that please you. If you are stressed, unhappy, resentful, worried, and so on, it is very difficult to be creative. You’re creative when you’re feeling good. Period.
Easier said than done, I know. But that’s the training (or untraining) part — if you want the words to flow, if you want to enjoy what you’re doing, you have to be able to turn off the daily demands of life, if even for an hour or so, and get neutral or, better yet into the vortex or zone of life. This is the gratitude piece, the piece where you realize you have a lot of good things going for you, etc. etc. You don’t beat yourself up about having writer’s block or not being published yet (that one pulled a doozy on me for years). You KNOW you have a lot of good ideas — you don’t need me to tell you that. You just have to remember it.
I honestly believe that you already have everything you need to get your work exactly where you want it to be. Don’t struggle anymore. Instead, look for the quiet opportunities that you’ve already written in, for you and your characters, and start from there. Good luck!