Thursday, February 21, 2013

The write words require time

Back in the old days -- by which I mean the 1980s and 1990s -- when the romance fiction market was exploding, writers followed a process that led to enormous success, not only for themselves but also for their readers and their publishers.

I call this a process rather than a formula because the latter word more appropriately applies to the stylistic conventions of each of the various genres and subgenres of popular fiction and most specifically to the subgenres of the romance novel.  But the process of actually writing and then getting published in the romance genre went something like this:

1.  Write the book.
2.  Join Romance Writers of America
3.  Subscribe to Romantic Times.
4.  Share the work-in-progress with fellow writers via some kind of critique group based in either RWA or RT or both.
5.  Revise the work-in-progress based on input from critiques.
6.  Enter the book in RWA contests.
7.  Attend local and national RWA conferences.
8.  Repeat steps 4 through 7 as needed.
9.  Submit manuscript (query, partial, or full ms.) to potential agents and editors.
10. Repeat steps 4 through 9 as needed until the book is sold.

Because most of us writing in the 80s and 90s had been educated in the school systems of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we had a firm grounding in the basics of spelling and grammar.  Not all of us, mind you, but most.  And that's why there's nothing in the 10-step process for learning how to write.  It was simply taken for granted that the writer knew how to write before Step #1.

And because most of us writing in the 80s and 90s had been long-time readers of popular fiction, we were also osmotically familiar with the basic structure of the novel as a literary form.  The explosion of the romance publishing industry in the 1970s -- it had existed before, but was nowhere near as large or powerful or open to newcomers -- gave us the opportunity to read both extensively and intensively in a genre we were already somewhat familiar with.

Steps 2 through 7, therefore, helped us to fine tune our writing, so that by the time we reached Step 8, we had accomplished two things.  The first, taking our novel from rough/first draft to polished manuscript, could be deemed a complete success if and when we proceeded through Steps 9 and 10 until the book was ultimately purchased by a publisher.  The second accomplishment, however, may have been even more important in terms of our careers than the first:  We learned how to deal with criticism.

For some of us, that second lesson was much more difficult than for others.  And more often than not, those who learned to handle criticism via regular participation in a critique group or frequent contest entries were also those who used that criticism to bring their writing up to publishable standard and ended up with publishing contracts in hand.

Many of those who couldn't handle the criticism, who took everything personally and defended their work as perfect and refused to change a word, who argued with their critique partners or insulted their contest judges, who flew into rages or sank into abject depression in reaction to negative comments, were unable to succeed in a writing career.  I've already detailed some examples from my personal experience of writers who had the talent and skill to write well enough to succeed but who didn't have the emotional fortitude to deal with criticism.

The writer who, in 2013, dashes off her first draft and immediately uploads it to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords has never gone through the process.  She goes immediately from Step 1 to Step 11.  As a result, she has no experience at all of the process.  In fact, she may have virtually no awareness even of its existence. 

Criticism can be cruel.  It can be malicious.  Not all critics are honest.  Not all critics are competent.  Not all critics are fair.  Not all critics are right.  Going through the process toughens up the writer to the inevitable less than glowing review that she'll receive after publication, but it also helps her to improve her craft.

Even a cursory examination of the many self-published novels flooding the digital bookshelves these days is sufficient to suggest -- if not outright confirm -- that many new writers are woefully unprepared for the realities of the marketplace.  Too many of them, to judge by their blogs and reactions to the critical reviews their books receive, fully expected to publish their books and start collecting huge sums of money.  Period.  Write it, publish it, and get paid.  Nothing else.  And they are beyond disappointed when it doesn't happen.  They are personally outraged.

The blockbuster success of certain works of fan fiction that have been altered for mainstream publication (both digital and print) has not helped to mitigate the expectations of these new writers.  If anything, it has heightened their already lofty expectations.  It has also exacerbated the problem of fan fic fans -- those groupies who may or may not be good guides for Steps 2 through 7 that are essential for success.  They may be supporters, even to the extreme point of being enablers, but they almost never help the writer improve her skills.

Being "kind" to the new writers with their poorly produced books will not help them become better writers.  Being cruel to their books, however, may be the only hope they have.

Sadly, many of these new writers take all criticism of their work as personal insults, and once they've fallen into that mindset, there's not much the critic can do except repeat the basics:

Your books are not yourselves, they are not your babies.  Criticism of them is not bullying.  They are indeed a product, like toasters or bicycles, pencils or baseball bats.  The consumer of your product does not care how much or how little time, effort, or love you put into the making of your product; she only cares about whether or not the product functions properly by her personal standards.  If your product does not meet her standards -- regardless whether it meets your own -- she has the right to complain.  And you, who put the product out there, have no right to challenge her.  Absolutely none.

If you, as a new writer, have not learned the lessons of Steps 2 through 7, if you have not learned both how to write and how to deal with criticism, you might want to step back and start learning.  In the end, you will likely not only be much happier, but you will also probably be a much better -- and more successful -- writer.

The rise of digital publishing has allowed so many new authors to enter the marketplace in ways not available when print dominated the industry.  Writers of novellas no longer have to wait for the right anthology to justify a print publisher's bottom line.  Writers for niche markets can be successful without a publisher's investment.  Prolific authors are no longer restricted in the number of books they can publish.  But digital publishing has not eliminated the need for good writing and good writing manners.  Both, unfortunately, take time.

Take the time, and learn to do it write.

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