Monday, April 19, 2010

Willpower, Part Deux

I still have a lot of venting to do about lazy "aspiring" writers that I didn't cover in my last post, so I'm picking up right where I left off.

About once or twice a year, I get a random email out of the blue from a "friend" I usually haven't seen or spoken to in years. These "friends" inevitably get in touch with me only when they want something. Usually, they email me asking for writing advice, because they've decided to write the Great American Novel. (Not only that, they ask if I can hook them up with my agents and/or publisher for the Great American Novel that they haven't even written yet----annoying and arrogant to say the least.)

I'm always happy to give advice when people ask for it (though I'm not a fan of either giving or receiving unsolicited advice). But when I do give advice, I speak frankly, and sometimes rather harshly, because when it comes to the publishing business I don't think it does anybody any good to sugarcoat things.

Whenever someone emails or calls me saying that they plan to write the Great American Novel, they usually also talk at length about how they plan to write said novel. I've heard all kinds of things about their plans, which have included everything from taking vacations to the exotic places where their novels will supposedly be set, to signing up for a bunch of expensive writing classes, to trying to figure out how much time they should spend writing "character studies" and "plot analyses" (which are useless wastes of time dreamed up by unpublished creative writing teachers, but I digress).

To which I reply, "Uh-huh. But when are you actually going to WRITE the novel?"

At this, I usually get a response that goes something like---"Well, umm, but----uhhhhh----"

This is where my usual advice kicks in. I sum it up basically as follows:

1) If you want to write a novel, you have to actually WRITE. Sitting around bullshitting about it or engaging in useless (and often expensive) procrastination activities such as overpriced "creative writing" classes and "character studies" do nothing for your actual novel. The only thing you need to start writing your manuscript is a basic outline, which you can usually put together in one page or less in about an hour. (And if you write organically like I do, you don't even need to do that. Just sit down at your keyboard and begin.)

2) Write every day. Novels are indeed written one page at a time, but unless you want to spend the rest of your life writing this book, you need to write-----at absolute bare minimum----a page a day. (That's about 250 words). Most serious writers write far more than this. When I'm in full swing of writing a novel, I average about 1500 words a day (that's about 7 pages). Sometimes more, sometimes less---but it's a pretty consistent average. If you write a page a day, it will take you a year to finish the first draft of a 350-page novel. If you write more per day, it will take less time, if you write less, it will take longer (or you won't finish it at all).

3) Be disciplined. Your book isn't going to write itself, and writing is hard work that takes time and commitment. Part of being a novelist is being willing to give up some of your other favorite pastimes (in fact, most of them) in favor of writing. I don't know how many times I've heard "aspiring" writers say things like, "well, I really want to write a novel, but it's the middle of Gilmore Girls/Dancing With The Stars/LOST/whatever season and I don't want to miss any episodes." Yeah, well, boo fucking hoo. If you really want to write that novel, you will make the time to do it. Otherwise, you don't actually want to do it at all.

4) Read. This is another one I get a lot of complaints about. When I tell aspiring novelists that in order to be good writers, they first must also read other good (i.e., published) writers, I often get a shrug and an eye-roll. "But I don't have TIME to read," people often whine. Either that, or they make up some lame excuse like "But if I read other writers, it will detract from my own voice." To which I reply, "If you don't read, you won't even know what 'voice' is in the first place."

5) Check your ego at the door. Believe it or not, the mere feat of finishing a novel manuscript----and an impressive feat it is----does not make you at all special. There are thousands upon thousands of other aspiring novelists out there who have done the exact same thing, and chances are, the vast majority of them will never be published----and neither will you. Be humble and learn to accept defeat early and often. Be prepared to write several complete novel manuscripts before getting even one of them published. There's an old saying in this business---"a professional writer is just an amateur who didn't quit."

6) Don't ever expect to make any money. For all those starry-eyed aspiring writers out there who think writing the Great American Novel will lead to easy riches, I have news for you. 99% of completed novel manuscripts will never see the light of commercial publication. Of the 1% that do see commerical publication, the majority will not earn out their very modest (i.e., $5,000 or less) advances. Of the tiny percentage of published books that sell more than 5,000 copies, an even tiner percentage end up on the New York Times bestseller list----and that doesn't necessarily mean that those books are making millions, either. If you aspire to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, good for you----but you have a better chance of being struck by lightning or being elected to the U.S. Senate.

After I hand out this advice, 99% of the people who came to me seeking help just stare at me gape-mouthed. They usually never even write a single page, let alone complete a manuscript.

But occasionally I do run into aspiring writers who do manage to finish writing their books, then manage to land an agent and get a book deal. And most of the time, these people did it entirely on their own, and didn't need my advice to begin with.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010


One of my writer friends shared this blog entry by literary agent Nathan Bransford with me today. In it, Bransford asserts that a writer's greatest asset isn't talent, or skill, or even a good literary agent. It's willpower.

Writers that succeed at any level, whether it's completing a full-length manuscript, getting an agent, getting published, or becoming super-successful bestselling authors, have one thing in common----writing isn't a do-it-when-you-feel-like-it hobby to them. It's work. Work that they've committed to at a deep level, work that they treat like a full-time job (even if they already have one doing something else). Writers work harder, and longer, (and for less money, natch) than just about anybody.

Every time I go to a cocktail party, or a wedding reception, or a children's play date, people ask me what I do for a living. I tell them I'm a writer. They usually raise their eyebrows at me and say, "No, really. What do you do?"

To which I reply, "I'm a writer. It's what I do for money. It's my job."

I then go on to explain that I write journalism pieces for magazines and newspapers. And I do healthcare writing for universities and healthcare companies. And I'm a playwright (produced AND published, thank you). And I'm a novelist (published, too). I even do some freelance editing on the side from time to time.

I'm always amused by some of the replies I get when I tell people what I do. Like most freelance writers, I explain that I'm self-employed, earning a modest living that I've cobbled together writing for multiple markets. I've written several books, and even have had some of them (a lot of them, actually) published. Sometimes I get these corny, naive replies like, "But doesn't everybody get their books published after they write them?"

Um, no. (I always have to roll my eyes at that one.) Only about 5% of completed novel manuscripts actually see commercial publication. The numbers are slightly higher for nonfiction, but not by much. And that doesn't even include all of the unfinished manuscripts floating around out there.

I also get really annoyed with all the people who think just because I've had a few novels published, I must be as rich as Stephen King. (Um, no.) According to the Author's Guild (which by the way, sets strict publication criteria for its members before admitting them), the average annual income of the American freelance writer is $10,000. Yeah. As in, below the federal poverty line.

But the people who annoy me the most are the people who say, "You know, I've always wanted to be a writer, but---", or "You know, I have this great idea for a book, but I just don't have time to write," or my personal favorite, "You know, I really think I should write my life story, but I'm not really a writer, so will you write it for me? And then after you write it, will you let me put my own name on it and also let me keep all the $$ it makes when it hits the New York Times bestseller list?" (You'd be surprised how often I've heard that one. And not from celebrities offering big ghostwriting bucks, either.)

I'm also annoyed by people I like to call halfassed writers. These are people who have actually managed to finish writing the first draft of a manuscript or two, but then they don't have the balls to sit down and do the hard work of revisions, researching the publication markets, querying agents and publishers, etc. These are people who will leave their first drafts sitting in drawers for years, lamenting why no one will give them a book deal (or a play production, or a newspaper contract, whatever). Any working professional writer will tell you that the actual writing is only about 20% of the equation. The other 80% is hustling yourself and your work to the businesspeople (publishers, producers, etc) who will pay you for it. And that part of the biz is just brutal.

But here's the thing I hate the most---"writers' block." I really hate it when the reason people give for not writing is "writers' block." I have one friend in particular who is a halfassed member of a couple writers' groups I participate in. For the past two years, this person has been flaking out of attending our meetings because he has supposedly had writers' block for that entire time.

People, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITERS' BLOCK. Do you know what writers' block really is? It's called being lazy.

As Bransford says in his blog post, real writers are the people who force themselves to write even when they don't want to. Real writers write even when there are eight hundred other things they'd rather be doing instead. Real writers sit down at the computer (or typewriter, or longhand journal, whatever) and write laundry lists if nothing else will come out.

In other words, real writers have willpower. Lots of it.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

We Give A Damn contest winner

Congrats to Saranna deWylde for her wonderful entry to the We Give A Damn contest. She'll be receiving a care package of romance novels from my personal collection. Thanks to everyone who entered! (Saranna, I'll be in touch with you to get you your prize.)

I do plan on doing some more of these contests in the future, so keep your eyes here for further info.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Web 3.0

(Just a reminder, my We Give A Damn writing contest is still open; I don't have any entries yet, but I'd still really like to see some. And I do have several prizes to give away).

Here in 2010, we're now in what I like to call Web 3.0. The Web 1.0 era took up the entire second half of the 90s and lasted up until about 2005 or so, upon the launch of the first "smart phones" and the early social-media sites like Myspace (oh, so passe now). Suddenly the World Wide Web unleashed itself from desktop computers and laptops and made its way out and about onto streets, buses, airports, and just about everywhere else. People stopped buying CDs and became dependent on their iPods instead (except me, of course). Then in the past couple of years, with the launch of the iPhone, the Kindle and other digital readers (for ebooks), and sites like Twitter and Facebook, it has become de rigeur for us to do literally everything online, no matter where we are-----read books, listen to music, talk, chat, journal, keep up on the news, follow the stock market, ad nauseum. Via Facebook and Twitter, we constantly update everyone we know (and in my case, even sometimes thousands of people we don't know) of virtually every thought that enters our heads. Social media has revolutionized everything from popular music to book sales to politics. (Most political analysts agree that Obama won the 2008 election in part because he understood these new electronic media better than his stodgy Baby Boomer competition).

With the launch of Apple's iPad, we're now into Web 3.0, only a couple of years after Web 2.0 (which took close to 15 years to happen, natch). The ever-shortening timeslots between updates just illustrate the exponential power of written communications technology to upend societal norms. What's going on now hasn't really happened on this scale since Gutenberg invented the printing press circa 1400. What's next on the horizon? Who knows?

But here's something I do know. With the advancement of all of this rapid-fire technology, there is one thing we're definitely losing track of. And that's common decency and manners. When you put a flatscreen monitor or an iPhone touchscreen between yourself and whoever is on the other end of the conversation, it's easy to just forget all rules of common courtesy and act like a complete asshat. We saw this on a smaller scale with the Internet and it's now-quaint chat rooms and message boards, but in the age of Facebook it's getting even worse.

I'm a pretty thick-skinned person in general (and I'm a straight-talking, bogtrotting Irish pottymouth sometimes, too), but I also believe in good old-fashioned respect and manners. And yet, in addition to the usual mix of anonymous online-asshat behavior I've come to expect over the years, I've also seen some people I have known and respected for years blow atrocious, obnoxious shit out of their asses (I mean, mouths) on Facebook lately.

To be fair, I'll admit that I'm just as guilty of this as anybody else. When you're typing alone in your attic, sending your words out into the ether, it's easy to forget that there are real people out there reading it. And not just anybody. People you actually know, and occasionally even see and socialize with in person. (Wait, does anybody actually DO that anymore?) Sometimes I wonder.

Somebody recently told me that the way people behave on Facebook is actually the way they are deep down. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. But if it is, it can be both a good thing (in terms of fostering creativity and communication along with mutual understanding across cultures), or a bad thing (i.e., people acting like asshats).

I'm a casual member of a historical recreation society that specializes in the Middle Ages. Every couple of months, I decamp from my busy, overworked suburban-mom life, disconnect myself from the Internet and Facebook and my cell phone, dress up in a costume, and pretend to be someone from the 16th century. It's fun and it's educational. But most of all, it gives me a chance to unplug from this world that is moving entirely too fast, and to get back in touch with what it means to have real human communication of the kind that just doesn't exist anymore. Like handwritten letters on vellum, long slow conversations over homebrewed beer somebody spent months making in his cellar, and the kind of ceremonial politeness and courtesy that is basically extinct now.

I write ebooks for a living, so my very existence is dependent on Web 3.0. But I still think there can be way too much of a good thing sometimes.


Friday, April 2, 2010

We Give A Damn Writing Contest

Well, my Spring Has Sprung writing contest was a success, and I still have a lot of stuff I need to give away, so I've come up with another writing contest.

In honor of the We Give A Damn campaign for GLBT equality, I'm putting a call out for 1-paragraph writing entries relating in some way to GLBT (that's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) equality). You do not need to be GLBT to write an entry, because chances are, you know (and love) at least one GLBT person, or has at least had someone from the GLBT community make an impact on your life. Write a 1-paragraph entry around this theme, and submit it as a blog comment no later than April 10. I'll be giving away more free books (and maybe some other goodies) as prizes. Make sure you include your name (a pen name is fine) and an email address so I can get in touch with you if you win.

Below is a paragraph of my own that you can use as an example (though you're by no means limited to something like this.)

"I'm straight, but I have always been a big supporter of GLBT rights and community, even before it was popular. One time about fifteen years ago, right after college, I was running the Chicago's Proud to Run 5K race, which is sponsored in part by the Howard Brown Health Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides low-cost healthcare to the GLBT community. (This race is traditionally held in Chicago on the day before the annual Gay Pride Parade.) One part of participating in the Proud to Run race is taking sponsorship dollars to support local AIDS charities. I posted a little thing about it on the bulletin board at work and was surprised when someone I had never spoken to before came and gave me a large donation. She then proceeded to flirt with me a bit. That's when I figured out she batted for the other team. (She was not too discreetly hitting on me, and though I was flattered, I politely turned her down.) But privately I admired her a lot for her guts, since we were both working for a very buttoned-down, very Republican, very anti-gay investment bank. Nobody at work knew about her lifestyle and I kept quiet about it until I left the company. She still works there to this day and as far as I know, is still closeted, because she could lose her job if she came out. The fact she has to hide who she is to stay employed is wrong, and it's one reason I continue to speak out as a straight person who supports GLBT rights."

---Jamaica Layne

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Has Sprung Contest Winners!

Hey everyone! I'm pleased to announce the contest winners for the Spring Has Sprung contest---one for each of my blogs:

Jill Elaine Hughes, The Blog Winner: Ryan Field

Jamaica Layne, The Blog Winner: Stacey

Ryan and Stacey will win care packages of romance novels from my own personal collection! Congrats!

Also, HONORABLE MENTION goes out to all entrants. Everyone who entered the contest will receive a FREE Gift Card to Ravenous Romance!

I will get in touch with everyone today to get your snail-mailing addresses. Or to save time, just email it to