Seven Pieces of Advice to a Young Writer
(I was once at an event with Paul Simon--no , that isn't the name drop. He was talking about name dropping. And he said the best name drop he ever heard was from John Lennon. Who said to Paul Simon--"When I was talking to the Dalai Lama the other day....")
Anyway, this is just about that good. I was at the Agatha's this year, sitting next to Sue Grafton. (Told ya.)
On the other side of Sue was this very very cool woman, funny, hip, clever, and obviously a favorite of Sue's. I found out later, after a dinner full of dish and hilarity, that Sue, being asked for a blurb by Sara's editor, had almost tossed Sara's new book--without reading it-- in the "no" pile. Then, for some cosmic reason, decided to give it a go, and then--was totally hooked. Sue's blurb: "I love this book." Can't do better than that, right?
Anyway, everyone else is loving the book, too--amazing reviews--and now, Reds, Sara has some Sara-type insight to the wonderful world of publishing.
Seven Pieces Of Advice To A Young Writer
Ten years ago this fall I published my first book. God, am I old! But being old is fun, and I've learned a little along the way. I've just returned from a teary, emotional tour for my new book, CLAIRE DeWITT & THE CITY OF THE DEAD, and lately I've been thinking a lot about what I wish I'd known when I started in this business. Ultimately, that's a topic too big for a blog post (maybe a five-volume bound set would do the trick), but here's a few tips for all the kids out there with stars in their eyes and a contract waiting for them to sign it.
Ladies, what are your best pieces of advice for "baby" writers? Which mistakes did you make starting out?
1. Trust no one. Horrible, isn't it? Of course, your agents, editors, publishers, and publicists aren't bad people (probably). But things change fast in publishing, which makes it hard for folks to keep their word. Every business has a bullshit factor, of course, but in publishing it's shockingly high. I'm not saying to close your heart or give up your compassion, but take everything, especially promises, with a grain of salt. Or an ocean.
2. Keep records. Lord, I know all you old hags like me out there agree with this one. Start some kind of a simple bookkeeping method to keep track of payments you should get and payments you do get (which may but probably will not correlate). Believe me kid, you don't want to be rereading your contract and scrutinizing royalty statements in ten years to see if you got that on-pub check for that second novel in Germany (and the answer is no, you didn't—because you weren't keeping records!).
3. Find your allies. In the crime and mystery world, most of the other writers play pretty nice. Trust your gut and find good friends. You might live across the country and you might not talk every day, but you'll need each other and enjoy each other as the years go on. I was just emailing with a pal I've never met, but have known for ten years, when both of our first books came out.
Your friendships with other writers will keep you sane, healthy and happy, and serve as your reality check when an editor tells you a check that's twelve months late is perfectly normal. But keep one eye open for the drama queens/kings, sociopaths, users, and social climbers, and avoid them at all costs. Stay with the nice folks. It might take them a little longer to succeed, but they get there eventually, and when they hit the big time it tends to last.
4. Understand that you're in vaudeville now. Sure, you can be the kind of writer who stays home and turns down interviews. Or you can be that brutally honest person who says what everyone's thinking on Twitter. Sounds good to me. But you know what doesn't sound good? A day job! I want my books to sell and for better or worse, a part of that today is showmanship. Learn to give a great presentation. Buy some decent clothes for events. Tweak your natural inclinations to develop a wittier, less offensive, public version of you. Create a character you can play when you have to go out in public. Not only can this sell books, it makes it hurt less when things go wrong. And it makes it all so much more fun.
5. Write what you want to write. Seems like the more books a writer sells the more people want to tell her (and maybe also him) what to do. "Sure, kid, that mystery was great, but if you really want to reach audiences you need to write a paranormal vampire thriller with the characters from Mad Men…"
Well, that might be a great idea, and I'm not saying you should ever turn down a good job offer; if someone wants to give you fifty grand to write the Mad Men vampire saga, cash the check, write the book, and use a pen name. It could be something wonderful. That's the short-term game. But never stop doing what you want to do, first because you absolutely have to or you will go crazy, and second because eventually, it'll sell.
The books that last aren't usually the books that people ask us to write. They're usually the books that sold two hundred copies on release and then went out of print for ten years. When Fitzgerald died his book were not, as commonly reported, out of print. They were sitting in the warehouse with no customers.
On his deathbed, Jim Thompson told his kids: never sell my rights. That's the long-term game. Feed your soul first and the money will follow, even though it might take a while to catch up. In the meantime, enjoy the short-time game, too—it has its own charms.
7. Have fun, and never forget how lucky you are. Old bitter folks like me like to complain, but you know what? I love this job. I have an editor I like and respect, a team I trust working on my books, I've made extraordinary friends and met fascinating people, and I just got a free trip across the country, during which my only obligation was to talk about myself incessantly. Sure, I've also been screwed every way possible, but that happens in other jobs, too—and besides, it was worth it. This job keeps you on your toes and never lets you forget that you're alive. And I get to play with imaginary friends all day—what other job can top that? Some people literally work in coal mines all day. Wow. I'll try to remember that the next time I complain about a late royalty check…
Ladies of Lipstick? What advice do you have for the kids out there—or for me?
HANK: See what I mean? Love to hear your advice...about writing--or hey, about anything! And please report in on your hurricane status. We're eager to make sure you're all okay...
Sara Gran is the author of the novels Dope, Come Closer, Saturn’s Return to New York, and the Claire DeWitt series (HMH 2011). Her work has been published in over a dozen countries in nearly fifteen languages. Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Ms. Gran lived in Brooklyn until 2004. Since then she has traveled widely and lived throughout the US including Miami and New Orleans. She now resides in the state of California. Before making a living as a writer, Ms. Gran had many jobs, primarily with books, working at Manhattan bookstores like Shakespeare & Co, The Strand, and Housing Works, and selling used & rare books on her own. Visit Sara at www.saragran.com.