A while back, I had a frustrating conversation with a guy who claimed to want to write. I’d hoped for better, given his email (which was why I agreed to meet him in the first place), but…well. So here are some of the things he did right, and a whole lot of things he did wrong.
Right: he was absolutely courteous, offered to buy me coffee and munchies in return for an hour of my time (it ended up being a bit longer, but hey, free munchies). He did not spend the entire hour explaining his idea in detail while giving me no opportunity to get a word in edgewise. He listened carefully and took occasional notes. He stayed polite, even when he was wondering aloud why the advice I was giving him was so different from the advice he’d been getting elsewhere.
Which brings me to what he did wrong. Which was mainly that he did not want to talk about his brilliant, as-yet-unwritten blockbuster fantasy novel. No, he wanted to talk about selling it. When he hadn’t put even one word on the page yet.
Now, this is not the first time (nor the second, nor the tenth) that this has happened to me. And I can understand the impulse; the wannabe author has an honest-to-god experienced professional right in front of him, someone who knows stuff about the business end that he hasn’t been able to find out no matter how hard he’s looked. Of course he’s going to want to ask about getting published and submissions and query letters and so on.
This guy spent the entire hour and a bit asking about the finer points of query letters, ebooks versus traditional publishing, getting an agent, portion-and-outline, marketing plans, foreign translations, self-publishing in hardcover, whether he should set up a blog/web page for the book, etc. He said not one word about actually writing the book. In fact, if I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t even have been sure it was fantasy and not science fiction or a Romance or mystery.
In return, I spent the entire hour and a bit repeating, in smaller and smaller words, “None of that matters until you write the book. There is a word for people who spend a lot of time setting up elaborate schemes to sell something that does not exist, and it is not a nice word. Write the book, finish the book, and then worry about all this. It’ll take you a year or more, probably, and by that time the market may look completely different. None of the publicity and marketing stuff matters until you have a manuscript to sell. None of it.
“No, planning your query letter before you have even written Page 1 is not getting a jump on things. If you are going to write one page, write Page One. And then Page Two. Thinking about how to boost your international sales is pointless when you have nothing to sell. Think about your plot. Setting up a book blog when there is no book and there won’t be for years is not going to win you an audience, and if you actually do it right, you’ll spend so much time writing the blog that you won’t write the book. Write the book first. A query letter is a job application for a novel; your novel can’t get a job because it hasn’t even been born yet, let alone grown up enough to apply for work. Write the book.” And so on.
I am just about positive that not one word sank in. As I said, I’ve been through this before, and whenever I’ve encountered a similar would-be writer in the past, one who is totally focused on how to sell an as-yet-unwritten book/manuscript, that would-be writer has never once, to the best of my knowledge, actually finished a book.
The tragedy is that not all of these would-be writers are after easy recognition. They really do have an idea they love, and they want to do their best by it. But they are so worried about the whole mystical, amorphous creativity thing, and so uncertain about the whole writing process, that they latch on to what seems more concrete, something they’re familiar with, something that sounds doable, or at least learnable: publicity and sales. They ignore the chance to get some tips on craft that might actually be immediately useful, in favor of asking about stuff that won’t be any use until their novel is finished, by which time they’ll be lucky to remember the general outline, let alone any of the fine points.
Interestingly, in my experience, people who have finished a first draft, and who are actually in a position to need to know about query letters and submitting stuff, tend to grill me about technique and editing and how to improve their manuscript, and only get down to query letter stuff in the last ten minutes of the meeting. Or, if they begin by handing me a query or an outline to look at, we end up spending two hours talking about the structure of the book, or pacing, or what the theme really is, before we get down to talking about improving the query letter in the last ten minutes or so.
Possibly this is because anyone who has actually made it through a first draft has a much clearer idea of what the hard part is, and what is and isn’t easy to find advice about.