Advice to Aspiring Writers–Part the Next

There are things you can work on before your book hits the shelves that are fun and useful for those days when your material needs to marinate in your imagination.

For one thing, you might need a pen name appropriate to your genre. I’m convinced part of the reason Stieg Larsson does so well is because that’s the very best name the author of those books could have in any language. Man, wish I’d thought of it, and of the books that go with it. I was not born Grace Burrowes. I chose that nom de plume because Grace has a nice, old-fashioned feel to it, appropriate to Regency romances. Then too, I had an Aunt Grace who was a marvelous lady, as genteel as she was good-humored.

As for the Burrowes part, I went into all the local bookstores (which number about four within a fifty mile radius of my home), and I looked for the authors whose last names in the romance section were at eye level. Among eye-level letters, I figured I’d go for a B-name, as the further along in the alphabet I got, the more chance I’d be bumped down the shelves by people trying to cozy up to Eloisa James or Meredith Duran. One of my riding buddies (Yo, Kim!) suggested Burrowes, and it felt right enough that I went with it.

Then, I had to do a domain search, to make sure graceburrowes.com was available as an internet domain name. As I recall, some of the other spellings for the last name had already been reserved. (Word of my impending international fame is apparently out, and everybody is going to be cozying up to my last name, right?)

One consideration I ignored was that authors are frequently asked to sign their books. Anne Rice was ahead of this curve: Eight letters. This takes a lot less time to squiggle onto a book than G-r-a-c-e B-u-r-r-o-w-e-s. Eight letters can also be printed on the cover of a book in much larger type than thirteen can. Bear that in mind when you’re leaning toward Araminthea Bollington Wickford.

The other aspect of a pen name to be aware of is that you’ll be introduced by this name, and it had better be something you want to answer to. I like the name Grace. When my author friends introduce me as Grace, I’m not looking around to find some woman I’ve never met. I feel like a Grace, at least among book-friends.

So… this is part of being an aspiring writer: What will your pen name be? Another part of being an aspiring writer is getting ready for that day when your editor says the book has been scheduled for production, and you have a certain number of weeks to come up with Big Names who will give you cover quotes for it. “Criminy,” you say, “I don’t know any Big Names.”

I don’t either, but I read Big Names all the time. I have a keeper bookshelf that holds dozens and dozens of romances, and it was to these authors I turned when I needed those quotes. I could honestly assert a connection to them through their work, and cite some benefit to me experienced as a result of their writing. Loretta Chase got me through a bumpy plane ride. Eloisa James made me cry at RWA National when she talked about her daughter being the hospital because my daughter was in the hospital that very day, and so on.

Now, Big Names certainly can’t give you quotes for the books you haven’t had accepted for publication, but you can be thinking: If my MS were complete, whom would I approach and on what basis? What could I put in a letter to them that would be sincere and convincing? Asking a bestselling author to take hours to read your book is hard. Best start considering how you’ll meet the challenge sooner rather than later.

And finally, if you’re writing, you’re also probably a voracious reader. Give the books you like a glowing Amazon or Barnes and Noble review, and you’ll have a place to start when you’re approaching those Big Names with a request to put that name on your first book. And next week, we’ll treat this topic of preparing for publication again. Meanwhile, start thinking up that pen name!

Advice for Aspiring Writers — Part the First

In the course of a blog tour to promote my debut novel, “The Heir,” I’ve been asked more than once what advice I have for aspiring writers. I hardly know why anybody would ask me such a thing. I have ONE book on the shelves, and that’s it. My experience and wisdom are quite, quite limited, so please take anything I say on the matter with more than a grain of salt.

Having offered the requisite disclaimer, however, I do have some suggestions (and will be blogging about this on the next few Mondays), the first being to write more than you aspire to write. I went to my first writer’s conference because I had turned fifty, and while I was having great good fun writing and writing, I wanted to know if my stuff had a shot at publication.

No, that’s not quite accurate: I hoped my stuff was good enough for commercial consumption, and understood that I could learn to pitch editors and agents at conferences. I shook my piggy bank, signed up for some conferences, and prepared to be brave. Within the first hour, I had the sense everybody was farther along the curve toward publication than I was. The other attendees quoted craft books to each other, reminisced about workshops where they’d learned so much, debated the strengths of various critique approaches, and went into raptures about this or that person’s query letter.

They dropped the names of editors and agents and houses and lines like publishing romance was a major league sport of which they were all fans and I had not the clue. I kept my head down, and my backside tucked in, and tried to learn as much as I could, but it was daunting.

What I learned was that completing twenty novel length manuscripts in a few years wasn’t normal. I concluded my stuff was probably not worth much, because I’d churned it out too quickly. I learned that writing that much without a critique group or even a partner wasn’t smart, it being accepted wisdom that I’d make more progress faster if I had either, or better still, both. I concluded that I’d been remiss, and started casting around for some people who could read and improve my drafts.

I learned that everybody with any substance at all as a fiction writer has a preferred plotting device, whether it’s GMC charts (goal/motivation/conflict), story boards, or archetypal heroic journey constructs. They have character development tools, and writing plans, and word count goals, and all manner of writerly paraphernalia. I concluded that I didn’t know jack, and I’d better start over and try again and get with the program here, or my laughable little attempts at telling a love story were never going to go anywhere.

All of which lasted a few weeks, before I was back writing and writing, having a great time—no crit groups, no craft books, no plot devices, just me and my computer and my imagination. At the next year’s conference, I decided to start pitching. The first person I pitched ended up offering me a nine book deal.

My point is not that you should toss out the craft books, abandon the crit groups, and jettison the plotting devices. If they work for you, hang onto to them with all your strength. My point is that you and only you will know if something makes the writing better, or simply wastes your time and energy, bewilders you, and saps your confidence and joy in the writing process, while providing a bunch of other—well intended, perfectly nice—people who are not you something to talk about when they’re having a grand time not really writing. Don’t aspire to write. Write.