Essay 9 - Some Thoughts Regarding the Real World
When I taught this class in college some years ago, several people raised some interesting questions that I felt needed answering. The questions were good ones and I thought the points they raised were worth covering again. So, I decided to focus this essay on the questions raised and the answers I gave. The questions dealt with some of the underlying truths about writing novels. I think it is stuff that you need to know if you plan to be a writer.
It never hurts to ask a question if you truly cannot figure out the answer. The only bad questions are ones where the answers are obvious if only you gave the matter a few minutes thought. Remember, that while you can impress other people with your knowledge, you can also un-impress them with your stupidity. It's best to showcase your knowledge to the world and keep your stupidity to yourself.
These were the two questions raised in class by one of the students that I felt needed answering ------------
1. I think writing the novel is the easy part. Hell, I've completed 6 novels without much difficulty. What I find is that it isn't the novel that sells it's how you sell yourself in the query letter. Will you explain how yours worked at some point, what yours looked like, and so on?
2. I believe plot is pointless. I let the story uncover itself much like Stephen King says in his book on writing. Is it your opinion that you must have plot in order to write the story?
----------- my answers --------
1) Cover letters are a problem for me to discuss honestly because I've always worked with an agent and she's submitted all of my novels - usually by handing the proposal or manuscript in person to the editor and telling them that they would like it.
On short stories, with rare exception, my stories were written for anthologies where I was invited to participate. So my cover letter read, "Here's the story you asked for. I hope you like it."
Now, when I was a teenager and first started writing, I did submit short stories and novels to publishers without an agent. My cover letters consisted of the name of the editor, his address, my name and address, the date. Then followed with--
Dear Mr. Pohl--
Enclosed is my short story, "Destroyer," which i hope you will consider publishing in IF magazine. A SSAE is enclosed for your convenience.
Of the hundred or so cover letters for short stories I wrote, that was the letter I always sent. When I submitted a novel, I put in the name of the novel and I changed the line to "publishing as part of the AVON paperback line."
Working as an editor for Barnes & Noble and other publishers, I have read thousands upon thousands of short stories. I have never given one more attention because of the cover letter. They make no impression on me whether they are a line or two long or whether they are pages long. I buy fiction based entirely on the quality of the work.
Despite reading hundreds of posts on the Horror Writers Forum and other message boards, I do not believe editors buys a novel or story based on what is said in the cover letter.
If a publisher’s web site or listing says that they want a query letter before submitting any material, write a short concise letter explaining what your book is about and what makes it different than other books the editor might have seen. A query letter is not a proposal, so keep it short, intelligent and specific. If an editor asks for a proposal, make sure you include the following: a brief summary of your book and what makes it unique. Do not, as I have mentioned previously, keep the ending a mystery from the editor. You need to let the editor know you have the entire book plotted in your proposal. Otherwise, the editor will suspect you have no idea how the book will end. Also include in your proposal a short bio, along with any credits you might have, the possible market points of the book (i.e. it would appeal to dog lovers since a dog is the main character), and a sample of the actual book. Most editors expect the first three chapters of a novel, (around 50 pages) along with an outline of what occurs in the rest of the novel. Make sure your outline squares with the short summary of the book you include at the beginning of the proposal!
2. I have only met Stephen King once or twice (and briefly those times) and I surely have no idea how he writes his novels. Still, while I find his advice ON WRITING interesting, I don’t particularly think it is very useful for a beginning writer. Perhaps some authors have written huge best sellers following his advice. I don’t know, though I strongly doubt it. My impression of his sections on how he writes novels is that most of it is based on what people want to hear from “creative types.” That like many autobiographical pieces written by bestselling writers, the “art of writing” side is emphasized and the practical side is mostly ignored. Do you really believe that King wrote his early novels like Carrie or Salem's Lot or The Shining or The Stand without having the endings of the books in mind? That he let the books wander along driven only by characterization until a neat way of tying up all the loose end suddenly hit him one night and he was able to type the end the next morning? King is a master storyteller and even in non-fiction he tells stories that people want to read. Having taught creative writing in college and having taught numerous writing seminars for years and years, I can tell you the number one problem new writers have with books - they can't end their book. They have no idea how to close their story with a meaningful conclusion. They let the book flow without a plot until they realize that there is no way to finish off the story and they give up. Or put on an ending that makes no sense.
Sure, many great writers tell you that they create characters and that the actions of the characters tell the story and resolve the plot. Well, despite their inner feelings that a plot does not matter, I find it fascinating that all the main elements in the story tie up in a neat manner in the end. Horror is not a genre where “life goes on” is a suitable ending. Or the main characters all go back to work and never call each other again. Horror novels need plots and endings.
If you've written six novels and they have not sold, then you are doing something wrong. The goal of a professional writer is to sell. That's the only way of keeping track of success. There are plenty of people in this world with 10, 15, 20 unpublished novels or more sitting in a trunk. The number of pages you haven't had published means absolutely nothing. Zero. Only the published pages count. If you are writing and writing and not progressing, not getting editors encouraging you to make changes or try something different - or revise your stuff and make it better - than you need to review what you've done.
Remember, as I have said before, the world is not against you. Nor is the world on your side. The world just doesn't care. (Thomas Hardy). If you are going to live off the money you make writing, you better be prepared to work hard at the job. If you depend on luck or circumstances, you are going to starve. Talent is wonderful and the most talented writers should always rise to the top. But, if you read what is published you know that's not true. Plenty of great books were rejected by good editors. If you're doing everything you can to get your work noticed and it's not working, then toss out all your old ideas, and come up with new ones. For every person who makes it by a lucky break, a thousand other writers succeed by never giving up and trying hard constantly.
The most important advice I can pass on to anyone who plans to become professional, full-time writer is "learn to be HONEST with yourself." In our world, in our lives, honesty isn't always easy. We want so desperately to believe that certain things are true that sometimes we end up fooling ourselves. Sometimes we end up actually believe the stuff that we tell other people. And, for a writer, that's death. If you can't face your own missteps, your own mistakes, no one else will.