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First Monday Mentoring for June – should you write a book you don’t love?

Welcome to First Monday when I open this blog to discuss what it’s really like to be a writer – not the glamour stuff but the inside track on the fears, the struggles and yes, the joys of writing.

This week a writer told me she’d sold “the book of her heart.” Naturally I was delighted but curious – what was meant by “the book of her heart?”

Turns out it’s a cross-genre book about characters who’d haunted her for years, not the kind usually sought by publishers but one she desperately wanted to write, even if no-one loved it but her. She’d come close to publishing the book herself but didn’t have the cash and time to invest in the work.

That led to me to asking if she would ever write a book she didn’t love. After a long pause she said, “Almost all the time,” adding that she’d started out reluctantly, but had fallen in love with the story along the way.

This suggests you can start writing with your head rather than your heart. “Exactly,” she agreed. “I can’t afford to wait for the muse to strike. Sometimes I have to write first and the love comes later.”

And if it doesn’t? “Something else will,” she said.

With 90 books written over many years, there have been stories I couldn’t wait to tell, when the words flowed like warm honey. Others were like pulling teeth, needing many rewrites to make them work. And then there was the book on plumbing.

I’ve always treated my writing as a business, proposing book ideas to publishers who contracted me to write quite a few. At other times an editor would like my proposal but have another book they wanted me to write instead. Hence how to do your own plumbing.

First of all, technically you need a qualified plumber even to change a tap washer. Plus I had zero interest in water hammer, grease traps and septic tanks. But I’d signed a contract and I researched and wrote the best book I could, having a plumber friend vet it before submission.

Pleased as I was to have delivered the book as promised, that project made me determined to find a way to write books that I could also put my heart into.

Without the plumbing book, I might not have discovered romance novels.

I’ve always been a romantic at heart, but the plumbing book empowered me to try something new. Fifty romance and romantic suspense novels later working with editors in London, Toronto and New York, I’d become known as Australian’s “queen of romance” with translations in dozens of languages including Icelandic and Manga – Japanese graphic novels. And the only how-to books I’ve written since are on the writing craft, such as The Art of Romance Writing with editions in print with Allen & Unwin since 1993.

My muse, the wonderful actor, writer and philanthropist, William Shatner, says he believes in saying “yes” to everything. This has led him to amazing opportunities from motivating the astronauts on the International Space Station, to designing his own futuristic motor cycle. At age eighty-six he’s still the busiest man on the planet.

William Shatner recommends saying “yes” to everything

Saying “yes” to everything sometimes means writing about plumbing, but can also mean creating a sci-fi series that gave me one of the best experiences of my writing life. Google “Parv Beacons” if you’re curious.

My next “yes” is to collaborate with the talented Dr. Anita Heiss on a novel, something neither of us has done before. Who knows where that will lead?

What will your next “yes” be?

Here are three ways you can learn to love any writing project:

  1. Take pride in stretching yourself creatively. Find something to love, even if it’s the income from doing the work. How might that fund a project you really want to tackle?
  2. Use all writing as a learning experience. From writing advertising copy, I learned how to inspire readers to act on my words. From scriptwriting – how to tell a story in dialogue and action. From my nonfiction books on writing – not only what works but why, broadening my own understanding of the craft.
  3. Be open to writing many different things. Some will be fun, others not so. Learn something new from every project, even if it’s that you don’t want to spend your life writing about plumbing.

What people or projects have inspired your writing? Have you loved some writing and not others? Please share your experiences here. The blog is moderated to avoid spam but your comments can appear right away if you click “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.

Happy writing!

Valerie

on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Valerie’s latest book, Outback Code, is out now

3 books complete in one volume

For international orders, print & ebook formats,

Booktopia http://tinyurl.com/hj3477e

From Amazon for Kindle http://tinyurl.com/hxmmqsk

 

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First Monday Mentoring for August – why writing “as soon as…” won’t get your work done

Welcome to the first Monday in August when I open this blog to your questions about writing. They can be on creative issues or business, such as dealing with agents, editors and publishers, or anything to do with the writing life.

Next week I’m presenting a workshop at the Romance Writers of Australia annual conference in Sydney, and I’m bound to come across one or more writers who intend to start writing “as soon as…” I don’t expect to be reading their books any time soon if at all, and here are three reasons why.

1. “As soon as…” never comes

What these writers mean is they will write as soon as everything in their life is under control. And guess what? Life is never that co-operative. If you truly want to write, you need to start now, no matter what state your life may be in.

Writers are good at what Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman, calls, “putting off doomsday.” Yes, writing is hard. But it will never get any easier while you tap dance around the process.

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2. You will always have an excuse not to write
Do you recognise any of these? I’ll write when:
I have more time
I know what I want to write about (you find out by writing)
The weather is not so hot/cold.
Christmas/New Year/School holidays are over
I finish my research
I’ve defrosted the fridge
The world becomes perfect

Nobody ever has all the time, money or clear head space to start writing. Some of the most successful books were written under the most difficult conditions. I’ve written while moving house, when family members were sick, and when writing was the last thing I wanted to do. Writers write.

3. Writing is like housework. It expands to fit the time you have.
A meme going around the internet says that we get the most housework done in the five minutes before unexpected guests drop in. The same can be said of writing. Have you noticed how you can fiddle around all day trying to get something written. Then as soon as you know you have to be somewhere else at a set time, the words seem to flow?

If only you didn’t have to leave now.

This is your creative brain tricking you into thinking the writing is suddenly easier, knowing perfectly well that you have no choice but to leave it soon.

One solution is to pretend you have to leave the desk an hour or more before you actually do. If this spurs your writing brain, you’ll get as much done as if you’d been there all day.

Another trick is to set a kitchen timer. Tell yourself you’ll write for the next thirty minutes then you can stop. But don’t stare at the blank screen. Write something. Write garbage. But write words. This act of starting is almost magical, making it easier to keep going. You may not even notice when the timer goes off because you’re already caught up. And if you are ready to stop by then, at least you’ve put in a solid thirty minutes at your chosen task.

Remember, the world doesn’t care whether or not you write. You are the one who’ll feel you’ve let yourself down by not writing the project burning inside you. And unless the words are burning inside you, you may never write at all.

Set deadlines for yourself. Even writing one page a day (about 250 words) every day for five days a week will give you a 65,000 word manuscript – the length of a genre novel – by the end of a year. And that’s with weekends off.

How do you get past the “as soon as…” challenge? Comment using the box below. I moderate posts to avoid spam. If you want your comment to appear right away, sign up using the button at lower right. I don’t share your email addresses with anyone. Happy writing.

Valerie

http://www.valerieparv.com
AORW cover
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook
Read some reviews of Valerie’s first Beacons novel, Birthright, at http://www.valerieparv.com/birthright.html

First Monday Mentoring for May – 5 ways to know you’re a writer

Happy first Monday in May, the day when I open this blog to your questions about writing. They can be on creative, craft or business matters. No question is stupid except, as the saying goes, the one you didn’t ask. So ask away using the comment box below. You can also share your experiences as a writer with others.

I’m sorry that comments need to be moderated before they appear.
I’m often tempted to turn that off, but friends who’ve done so report an avalanche of spam and rudeness we can all do without.

To kick things off, here’s a question I was asked while attending Conflux National Science Fiction Convention in Canberra. The event was wonderful, attended by writers, editors, publishers and fans of fantasy and SF. During a coffee session, I was asked, “How do you know if you’re a writer?” A good question.Time is precious.No-one wants to slave away on stories that are going nowhere. Here are some clues that might help.

1. You look at stories differently
You read a book, watch a movie or TV show and mentally write a better ending. You get impatient because you know who the villain is before anyone around you. A pen on a desk is never just a pen. It’s a potential weapon and you’ve already thought of a dozen ways it could be used. You’re either a psychopath or a writer, possibly both.

2. You feel things more acutely
You lose someone and while grieving, store away the feelings in case a character can use them later. You attribute motives to actions, even if the person doing them was merely acting on impulse. As a writer, you know that actions must be motivated, even if not in real life.

To a writer, everyone & everything is a story

To a writer, everyone & everything is a story

3. You observe everything
Yes, even your own suffering. As writer, Anne Lamott says in her wonderful Bird by Bird, if you’re held up, you don’t actually think, “So this is what it’s like staring down the barrel of a gun” but you come close.

4. You turn everything into a story
You wonder if you’re heartless because you channel your tragedies and suffering into story ideas. Judy Nunn calls this meta-observing “the third eye.” All writers have it, and we can’t turn it off.

5. You set the bar high
I’m convinced we write to prove to ourselves that we can do it…again and again. After quitting my day job, I wrote the same number of words full-time as part-time, because I expected more of myself. Make the New York Times bestseller list? Next time aim for #1 spot. Sell half a million copies? Next time it better be a million.

Far from being a cruisy, wrist-to-forehead profession, writing is one of the toughest gigs I know. How did you find out you were a writer? What’s good and bad about it for you? Love to share your comments.

Valerie
http://www.valerieparv.com

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on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Read some reviews already up at http://www.valerieparv.com/birthright.html

Of course my story’s original, it’s about a defrocked nun: the X-factor and your book

When you ask an editor what they want in submissions from writers, the usual answer is they want something “fresh and original”. Publishers of category romances such as Harlequin Mills & Boon say the same. The other perennial answer is “a good book”. Problem is they can never define what they mean by a good book that is fresh and original; only that they’ll know it when they see it.

The deal is a lot like the reality shows such as X-Factor and Wherever’s Got Talent. Being able to get up and sing,  juggle or play an instrument, however skilfully, is not guaranteed to make you a winner. You might hit all the right notes, look fabulous on camera, and have nearly every attribute the judges are seeking. But unless you possess one other magic ingredient – the X-Factor, for want of a better term, you won’t reach the top of the tree. This X-Factor is sometimes called star quality, and the truth is we DO know it when we see it. One performer will come out on stage with a voice less special than the previous contenders, may be less well presented and not all that physically attractive, and yet…and yet…we can’t take our eyes off them.

There's no denying a Lightbulb Moment

IMO this elusive X-Factor can’t be taught, and the lucky few who possess it are born with it.  Most of them would deny they are anything special. They do what they do for love, because they don’t feel complete unless they are practicing their art. Is that you? I don’t know. But if  your work is placed in front of me, I’ll know it in an instant, as would any editor or publisher. The words may be raw and unpolished, the grammar wobbly at best, but if you possess that quality your story will be so compelling that I need to read on and on to find out what happens next. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to polish your writing and master the principles of grammar and spelling. Publishing is such a competitive industry that you need to do everything you can to make your work stand out. But above all, write a story that grabs YOU and won’t let you alone until you tell it. You’ll know it’s the one because you’ll be smiling as you read it back, which you have to do because you were spilling words out so fast your fingers could hardly keep up.

This is the story editors will see as fresh and original, because it felt that way to you. You couldn’t wait to get to know these characters and share their story. You won’t have to turn handsprings to come up with something no other writer in your genre has done, because the characters will take care of that for you. They may be perfectly ordinary people in a perfectly ordinary setting, but you’ll be so in love with them you’ll take us along for the ride. No need for an invisible heroine or a defrocked nun, though I suppose they too have their stories.

Every year I have the privilege of judging the final entries in the Valerie Parv Award organised by Romance Writers of Australia. And almost every time, there will be one book that jumps out at me because it has that elusive star quality. I almost always know it the moment I start reading, and I suspect most editors would too.  To be fair I’ll read every other entry with the same care but once that X-Factor entry has grabbed me, it rarely lets me go. Doesn’t matter if it’s a genre I personally enjoy reading or not, it’s the one and that’s that.

Can you spot the X-Factor in the work of others? What about in your own? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Valerie

On Twitter @valerieparv

and on Facebook

http://www.valerieparv.com

As a writer you have less competition than you think

Attending two writing conferences this year,  I was surrounded by nearly 3,000 writers altogether. At such events, it’s easy to think that everybody in the world is writing or wants to be. To a new writer, this can be discouraging, making you feel as if the odds are well and truly stacked against your success.

What will be the secret of your success?

The reality can be very different. Many times I’ve been told  that I’m the first writer someone has met.  With so many of my friends involved in the publishing world, that can seem unlikely. Yet the truth is, like any creative artist, we writers are relatively rare. I was given evidence of this while working with a charismatic editor at Mills & Boon, Luigi Bonomi, one of the few male editors in the romance field. He went on to found http://www.bonomiassociates.co.uk/ a successful literary agency. I urge you to check his website if you’re interested in submitting material to the UK. Click on submission guide and authors to see the kind of writers and material the agency handles. While Luigi was visiting Australia, I asked him about a statistic I’d heard many times – that Harlequin Mills & Boon in London received something like 4,000 manuscript submissions a year, and were doing well to accept 10. Luigi soon put these daunting odds into perspective by pointing out that the total included poetry, war memoirs and a great deal of other material the company did not handle. Removing them from the statistic left a much smaller “slush pile” of books and the odds suddenly became much more attractive.

But publishers don’t deal in odds. They deal in individual books and authors and they say over and over that they don’t want clones of the authors they already publish. They want fresh new voices with something new to say, even in a tried and true field like romance. This means you’re only competing with one person – you. By submitting a story that you’re passionate about, written with skill and care, and submitted to the publisher most interested in what you write ie no war memoirs to HM&B, you greatly improve your chances of success.

The other statistic leaving me gobsmacked was quoted by Bob Mayer at the Romance Writers of Australia conference. Bob said that 90% of pitch requests are not followed up. In other words, if you make an appointment with an editor or agent to “pitch” (sell in a few words) your writing project, and the agent or editor asks you to send them a full or partial manuscript, if you follow through you’ll be in the tiny 10 per cent of writers who do.  These days, with more small presses and online publishing opportunities, there’s no need to fear the odds. It’s far more important to write and keep writing so that when you do sell, you have more to offer your eager readers.

You need to be like Judy Garland. When asked the secret of her success, she replied, “I practiced when the others had all gone.” What can you do or are you doing to improve your own chance of success?

Valerie

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