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August 28, 2011

Seven Pieces of Advice to a Young Writer

Sara_Gran_043 HANK: To introduce Sara Gran, I have to name drop.

(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. Gran_cover 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

                        by Sara Gran

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.

 Books_3_htm 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.

6. Learn to love reading contracts. There's just no way around it. Find a way to make it interesting.

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.


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Don't tell him I said this, Hank. but the Dalai Lama will talk to anybody.

Great advice! For "young" and "old" writers. There are things in there to remember at any stage of the game, and it's a life's game, so tremendously important.

Sue Grafton's sister lives in my community, so she has a local connection. I've never met her, but I'm super impressed that she gushed up that great blurb for you, Sara!

Your advice is spot on. Sing it, sister! I had someone promise to edit and publish my first book. Nine months went by without a word, and she finally admitted she hadn't done squat on it. (That's when I decided to self-publish.) This was someone I had considered, if not a friend, at least an ally. Ha.

A work-for-hire contract turned into a balled-up mess with a handsome kill fee because the editor kept trying to make me write anything but what the approved outline required. We did not communicate at all, and I was so relieved to stop that project. It was so stressful! They had given me four months to write a 60,000 word book on how to sew, complete with multiple photos per page. At the time I was raising three kids, so I think I'd have more flexibility and equanimity now, but it was just too much.

I'd also add one other thing. If you think you will have the opportunity to hand sell your own books (and really, even if you don't), negotiate a better discount for buying them for your own use. Usually, authors get some low amount off retail price, maybe 20%; I negotiated down to 40%. Which was lucky, because the publisher made a hash of the blurb on the Internet, the back of the book blurb, and they misspelled my name. Most of the 6,000 books that sold were hand sold by me, including about 1,000 in e-book form, after the rights reverted back to me. Having a low cost to buy them meant I made more profit when I sold them.

I'm praying for everyone on the East Coast, including you, Miss Hank. Stay safe, my friends.

I might add: Never stop learning how to write better.

But the part about keeping your friends? OH, yeah, baby!

Oh, Sara, if you're old, I'm a hag. Also, you are a knockout.

And I love your advice, all of it, but what I want to know is, what if the book you want to write really is the Mad Men Vampire saga?

Wait, Harley, I'm writing the Mad Men Vampires!

And yes, she is a knockout.

Thanks for the good thoughts,KAren. It's POURING here. Anyone else have weather news?

BAck to revisions..saving like mad, just in case..

When I read what you writers go through, I marvel that anything ever gets published! I thank all of you writers for not giving up. We, your readers, benefit from your persistence. Your writing gives us such pleasure. I will be looking for your books,Sara!

Well, the storm: we were hit hard here in Milford CT. The city has a phone emergency alert system. I received several calls yesterday about the neighborhoods that had mandatory evacuation. The initial messages were a little vague about whether or not my street needed to be evacuated - I am in a condo complex that is near a beach neighborhood.I called the info number to double check. I was told that my street is one street over from the evacuation area, but I was urged to get out if I had anywhere to go. "You would be one less person for us to worry about" is what I was told. There is only one way in and out of the complex, and the fire dept said that because it is in a wetland area,there was no way to know if the entrance/exit would be under water. Friends and family from out of town kept calling me to urge me to leave, even before the city started calling. I was going to go to a sister's an hour from here,when a local friend called to tell me to come over to her house. She lives two blocks higher up from my complex. Wehave been hearing sirens all day and we found out that the street two blocks down from here is under water. The National Guard is over there, along with local emergency services. From what we can gather,people who did not heed the warnings got stranded in their homes. I happen to be on vacation, which is good, because I normally drive down that street to get to work! I know that anothr backblogger lives here in Milford. Donna if you are reading this check in!
Sorry for the typos. I am typing on my kindle and it's not easy!

Great advice. I esp. like the one about writer friends. I'd also add the value of a non-writer reading friend (aka walking partner in my case) who can deliver a "that idea sounds great" or "that idea sounds weird" opinion.

Storm report: All's well in Delaware, despite this week's earthquake, hurricane, tornado, flooding and mudslide.

Great advice! I have to say the authors I have met have all been very encouraging to a newbie. They have been so thoughtful and willing to share their own experiences. Thanks!

Safe here in sunny VA.

Great advice -- and I'll be checking out the book as well. Have a happy, safe Sunday!

Deb--stay safe! xxo

Such great advice.

I'd add, "Don't let others "show you" how to "fix that scene". Instead, take to heart there's something to work on if 2 or 3 people comment on it.

Grow a tough skin - and realize critiquing isn't "cut bait & fish" ... but "be truthful and polite".

Raleigh has sun today (and humidity), but hardly any damage - and working electricity!

Excellent advice! I'm so glad for your success and I won't even complain too loudly that my TBR pile has now grown several inches higher with your titles.

I'll just name-drop and add one line that has been my guiding star for years: I have a piece of 3-hole notebook paper safely stashed in a file, a hand-written letter from Horton Foote, in which, amidst greetings and chat and signature, is the clear line: "Just keep writing, no matter what."

Laraine, I am so jealous. I love Horton Foote.

Oh, Laraine, what a treasure!

Coming in here late. Welcome. Sara, and you make several good points. Karen, the best way to get extra copies of your book is from your local independent book seller, with whom you should already have cultivated a warm relationship. Most publishers will give you 25-50% off list, BUT those sales don't count toward your royalties. The indie bookseller will give them to you at her price: 60% off AND the books count toward your royalties and toward HER credit with the publisher so that she can get comp money back for ads and signings. Win-win all the way.

Sara, thanks for the writing-author-relationships-acquaintences advice. I need it. Freakin' bad.

Hank, you want weather news? It's hot in Tucson. A tree fell across the brook at my baby sitter's house - the house of the woman who baby sat me when I was four in Billerica. She sent me a photo of the tree across the power line. No electricity and the tree is slipping, and they have to wait to get it fixed, because worse things than falling power poles are happening in Middlesex County. Well that's what you get for calling your county middle sex, I guess. When I was a little girl they put smudge pots in the road to keep people away from the edge of the road. I see in the photo they have a real guard rail.

Margaret, that's good to know about indies and comps and stuff - should I ever be so fortunate.

Margaret, I stand corrected. That advice was given to me by another author, but it was nearly 15 years ago, and the world was a lot different then.

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