Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How NOT to take 20 years becoming an "overnight" success

First off, if you're stopping by my blog after seeing a mention of it in ROMANTIC TIMES, thank you so much for coming. And if not -- thank you so much for coming! LOL!

When I saw the magazine was out, I started thinking about what would be the one message I'd give aspiring writers who are just getting started in the business. The answer was obvious -- don't do what I did.

Now, on the face of it, I've done pretty well since my first book came out in June, 2004. I've had four novels out, the latest of which was on the USA Today list for three weeks. One of the anthologies I was in, HOT BLOODED, won the Borders Group Award for best selling romance anthology last year, and another book, FOREVER KISS, won RT's Critics Choice award for Best Erotic Romance.

All of which sounds pretty good, until I tell you how close I came to blowing it. I want to share my mistakes with you, because I'm pretty sure some of you are doing the exact same things.

I decided I wanted to become a novelist when I was nine years old. From then on, I always had a book going. There were maybe two years in the past 36 when I wasn't actively working on a book. The trouble was, until I turned 40, I never FINISHED any of them. I always convinced myself they weren't good enough. I'd write a few pages, and I'd immediately start rewriting, and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite and I'd rewrite, seeking perfection, until I became so thoroughly SICK of the idea that I'd just walk away. Then I'd start another book and do the same damned thing.

So my first piece of advice is this: DON'T REWRITE UNTIL YOU GET THE FIRST DRAFT FINISHED. Or at least more than halfway done. The editing function of the brain is different from the creative function. Once you turn that editor on, creativity comes to a screeching halt. So resist the impulse to rewrite. Then, when you do get it finished, give the book two complete rewrites and send it out the door. Do not let yourself tinker the book to death.

After you finish the book, SUBMIT IT. Fact of the mater is, I was probably publishable fifteen years ago, but I never submitted anything (Because, hey, never finished anything.) You're going to get rejections. Ignore 'em. If the editor has any suggestions about how to make the book better -- THAT WORK FOR YOU -- make them. Otherwise, send the book out again. Repeat the process until somebody buys it or you realize you can write a better book.

As to agents -- Kids, I hate to say this, but for newbies, messing with agents is generally a waste of time. Yes, there are some markets that require agents, but agents are like the rest of us: they don't like to work all that hard. It's a lot easier to get an agent after you get an editor's interest.

True story: in 2000, I decided I was by God going to finish a book. Wrote FOREVER KISS. (The one that won the Critics Choice award.) Sent queries to ten agents, got ten rejections. I was really discouraged, so I mentioned it to Alexandria Kendall, who publishes the Red Sage erotic romance series SECRETS. I'd been writing novellas for Alex for years, and she believed in me. She said send it to her, and she bought it. We ended up making a ton of money on it. Anyway, soon afterward, I got a call from Cindy Hwang at Berkley, who had discovered my Secrets stuff and wondered if I would be willing to write something for Berkley. Youbetcha. I came up with two ideas that weekend, pitched them on Monday, she said send a proposal. Then I got online and asked my Secrets author pals if any of them knew any agents. Emma Holly suggested her agent, Roberta Brown. I called Roberta, sent her a copy of an anthology I did for Ellora's Cave, and she accepted. Within a month, I had a tw0-book contract AND an agent who got me more money that I would have been able to get myself.

The point of this story is that it's MUCH easier to get an agent after you've engaged an editor's attention. The second point is that once you have engaged an editor's attention, GET AN AGENT. A good agent -- check them out and make sure they're not thieves before you sign anything with them. Agents can get you more money than you can get yourself, but only if they're honest. Mine is! (Many, many writers and artists have been ripped off by dishonest agents. Protect thyself.)

Next -- I realize a lot of people swear by the fine art of seat-of-the-pants writing. Many of them are writers I personally worship. You may be one of those people who can't write any other way, in which case, God love you. But if you're not sure whether you're a ploter or a panster, TRY PLOTTING FIRST. Spend time thinking about your book. What are your conflicts? What is the thing that keeps your hero and heroine from instantly falling in love on Page 1? And there had better be something, or the book is going to be impossible to write. Here's a trick I've learned: the more conflicts there are, the easier the book is to write. Figure all that stuff out. Figure out what your hero wants, what your heroine wants, and what your villain wants. Then figure out the steps each will take to GET what he wants, and how the others will react to those moves. They're going to do something to get in each other's way. The villain is going to try to murder the heroine, and the hero will try to stop him. Or the heroine will decide to steal the hero's priceless antique whatzit, which she needs to stop the villain. How is the hero going to react to that?

THINK about your cool book idea, and whether it will really work as a romance. I had a nifty high-concept idea: werewolf hero goes undercover as a police dog to investigate a murder, and ends up falling in love with his handler. Cute idea, huh? Only thing is, I had neglected to consider a simple detail: If the heroine thinks the hero is a dog, she's not gonna fall in love with him. DUH. Thus I got 100 pages into the book, going nowhere, before I realized I had a serious problem. I had to go back and gut that book four times before I figured out how to get it to work. If I'd sat down and really thought about the implications, I would have seen the problem coming.

Now, in case you're wondering, I did do some stuff right. First, I learned my craft. I learned how to write a clean sentence, and I studied the market. I read the stuff I'd written, and I looked for my strengths and weaknesses. Reading the stuff I wrote in the early 1990s, I realized that the scenes that worked best were the love scenes. I tried to figure out why the love scenes worked and the other scenes didn't, and realized it was sensual detail and emotion. Then when I found a publisher that was publishing sensual stuff, I targeted that market and was quickly accepted.

Finally, when I DID have an opportunity thrown in my lap -- Cindy Hwang's phone call -- I did not let my fear and insecurity keep me from writing the best book I was capable of. I seized the opportunity and ran with it.

I firmly believe if you apply these lessons to your own writing career, you'll be off to a good start.

Remember: never give up!

Angela Knight


Jenn said...

Thanks so much for the sage wisdom. I have tried for the agent, but, in the meantime, I've been offered a contract. Two different novellas in anthologies to be released. I am still hoping for the agent, but until then, I'll keep writing my small, funny and hopefully hot stories, and of course, reading yours for inspiration of an entirely different sort *grins*
Congrats on your article in the RT mag!!

Morgan Hawke said...

A piece of advice from my Agent:
-- "Agents will always prefer a 'plotter' over someone that writes by the 'seat of their pants'."

- "Plotters are more likely to actually finish their books, and complete their contracts."

Whether or not this is actually true is not the point. The point is Agents believe it to be true.

Something to consider, ne?

Angela Knight said...

Jenn -- If you've been offered a contract, I'd go CALL a couple of agents you like and ask them to represent you! They like free money as well as anyone else.

Maura said...

Great advice, Angela. I had started writing with a plan to do as I had done with my tech writing (write story, find agent, let agent sell).

And I had also done the start multiple things and finish none for the last year or so.

I decided to go ahead and write one of the stories anyway and see what happens which is what I'm currently in the midst of. Then I'm just going to go ahead and submit it to one of the e-pubs (this one is romantica/erotic romance) and see what happens while I start working on the next.

I'll worry about the agent eventually. I know who I'd like, I think, but I will stand a better chance once I've made some sales.

I borrowed a seasoned test reader's expertise (hi Erin) and despite my questions of "Is this crap and I'm just fooling myself?" she is asking for more so it isn't crap. She would just tell me so if it is. I've already gotten to 11% which is about twice as far as any previous fiction.

At the risk of being perceived as an ass-kisser - the stories you, Shiloh Walker, Morgan Hawke and Jaid Black were writing are what both got me hooked on the genre and got me off my butt about just starting to write anyway!

Don't Stop!

Annie Windsor said...

It's funny, been when I first started out, plotting was my strong point, and I got dinged on character, voice, and pacing. So, I worked and worked there, and in my more literary stuff, started writing character-driven fiction. Which made plotting HARD.

I'm coming back to it now, to working on that key element, after all this time. Only, this time, I think I'm ready.

This time, I think when I lay out a plot, all the pieces will come together easier and faster. At least I hope they will!

Emma Ray Garrett said...

Great advice, as usual! And AK is very right. You should definitely try to plot first. Number one, it usually makes the writing go much smoother and easier. Number two, it definitely makes writing a synopsis easier, LOLOL!

I'm not a true plotter. It doesn't work for me. However, I do plot what the book is about out. Think of the blurb on the back of a book, only the ending is included, and you'll have a fair depiction of how I write. Combine that with looking at each chapter as a paver on the path to the end, and finishing a book became fluid for me, instead of stressful and depressing, LOLOL!

Best of luck to all the writers out there and thanks, Angela, for sharing your mistakes so that we can learn from them!

Jordan Summers said...

Terrific advice.