Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Secrets from the Published Author Trenches

Most of the time when I blog these days, I try gear my talk toward readers. But since so many of us reading this blog are writers, I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to share a few little details, little secrets you may not know, about publishing from the writer's point of view.

I know there are other published authors here writing for different houses than I write for, and I encourage y'all to jump in with any details that are different where you write.

Anyway, here are a few things that surprised me when I finally got published and started writing as a published author instead of an unpublished writer:

1. If you are no good at writing synopses, don't sweat it too much.

I stink at writing synopses, to this day. I write too long, ramble too much, include too much detail and all around fail to produce the kind of perfect synopsis that all the writing books and tips tell you to produce. But my editor still buys my books. She knows synopses are not my strong suit, but she's worked with me enough to know it has no bearing on my ability to tell a story. So do your very best to get it right now, while you're trying to impress an editor with your professionalism. But don't feel as if you have no hope if you can't produce that beautiful synopsis they use in all the How To books.

2. Once you have a few books under your belt, you don't have to finish a book to sell it.

Well, you do have to finish it at some point, obviously. But you don't have to be finished with it to sell it. Editors buy on proposal, which is generally three chapters and a detailed synopsis. In multibook contracts, they'll buy on 3 chaps/synopsis for the first book and just synopsis on the subsequent books. If you're a prolific, established writer like Nora Roberts, you can probably sell by telling your editor, "I'm ready to write three more books." It varies by how established you are, your editor's opinion of how reliable you are, etc. And none of that changes the fact that you do have to produce the book or you're going to owe someone some money.

3. You have to write harder than ever once you're published.

My editors at Harlequin Intrigue would love to see me write four or more books per year. I'm trying to meet that output, even though I work a full time day job that I don't anticipate leaving anytime soon. I'm not married and I'm the head of my household, which includes my retired mother, my disabled sister and my two school-age nieces. I can't give up my day job to write. But I want to meet my editors's wishes. In some ways, I'm competing with my fellow Intrigue authors, many of whom write full time. There are only so many slots in Intrigue, and I don't want to be sidelined because I can't produce as quickly as the others.

So I have to give up things in order to find time to write. I have to write when I'm tired, when I'm cold, when I'm sick, when I'm preoccupied. I write on my lunch hour, in the evening and on weekends. If I get days off from my day job—Christmas and Thanksgiving included—I still have to write. It's a job, and I have to go to it every day in order to produce at the level I want.
Luckily, the rewards are worth it.

4. Writing category-length books is challenging.

Anyone who thinks, "Oh, anyone can write those short little books" needs to try to do it. It's hard. You have to tell a story with all the same structural elements as a bigger book. You don't get to skip steps. But you have to distill the essence of the story into a streamlined, intense core narrative using characters and subplots sparingly. In the case of my books, Intrigues, you have the added challenge of developing a complex mystery plot while also developing a compelling and believable romance, all within 60,000 words.

I went into writing category not only because I loved reading the books but because I thought it would be easier than tackling a bigger book. The only thing easier was that it was shorter and the torture didn't last as long. But it was still torture. Good torture, but torture nonetheless.

5. Writing Romance is a sisterhood (with a few brothers just to make things interesting)

Yes, there will be friction in any large group of people. Feelings will get hurt. But romance writers, on the whole, are an amazing, supportive group of people.

I mentioned earlier that I feel a sense of competition with my fellow Intrigue authors. That's true. I do. But I also know they're wonderful writers who have earned their way into their careers, and I wish every single one of them well. And I know they wish the same for me. We may be competitors, but we're also sisters (and brothers, as there are two men writing for Intrigue now). Maybe it's because we all know we got there the hard way, and that we stay there the hard way. Romance publishing is a meritocracy, on the whole.

Those are a few of the things I've learned about writing from the published side of the aisle. Now, let's open this thing up to questions. Anything you've wondered about what it's like to be published? If I know the answer, I'll be happy to tell you. And if I don't, maybe someone else will, or I can find the answer for you.

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Don't forget my book Chickasaw County Captive is out in stores this week. And you can still find my January Intrigue, Case File: Canyon Creek, Wyoming online at amazon.com, borders.com, barnesandnoble.com, Books-A-Million online and eHarlequin. Visit my website at www.paulagraves.com or my blog, Spinsters and Lunatics, to keep up with my current and future projects.


Cari Hislop said...

Congratulations on your new book!

As you've offered to answer questions, I've long wondered how much Harlequin authors earn on average for each book. If you feel comfortable sharing the information
I'd appreciate it. If not I'll understand. :)

My books average 60,000, but I can't imagine writing four of them a year! If I write two a year I throw myself a party.

Paula said...

Cari, it varies a lot by line and by author. Let's just say, it's a lot less than yours average, at least per book.

I think Presents and Desire authors earn a good bit more than the rest of us do. I make it into very low 5 figures per book, as a rule, but I'm a relatively new writer. I think other writers make more per book than I do. I'm working hard to improve my own sales, though.

Brenda Hiatt's Show me the Money is pretty accurate, from my experience, regarding Intrigue earnings, anyway.


Heather said...

Great blog post!

What process do you use for writing your books? Do you outline? Do you write your synopsis first?

Jeanie said...

Thanks for sharing this, Paula. It's a perspective we wannabes don't get very often. How much revision do you generally have to do? Little tweaks here and there, or do you ever have to turn the darn thing inside out to please your editor? That's the part that scares me, the total mindnumbing rewrite.

Callie James said...

Do you ever feel truly finished with a book? Or like me, could you edit forever?

Paula said...

Heather, I do outline. It's not the only way to write, however. It's just the way *I* write. I know a lot of great, successful writers who don't plot very far ahead at all abd write wonderful, lucrative books. I just can't write that way.

Just as no two people are really alike, no two writing processes are alike. I can give you suggestions for how to accomplish things you want to accomplish, but ultimately you'll pick and choose the advice that works best for you and turn it into your own writing process.

Paula said...

Jeanie, I've done both kinds of revisions. My first book I revised extensively based on my editor's revision notes. Other books, I've hardly revised at all, save for a few nitpicky tweaks here and there to correct continuity problems and answer questions my editor thought I didn't answer sufficiently over the course of the story.

Don't be scared by revisions, though. I know in my case, my editor's suggestions all made sense and turned my book into a much better story in the end. Yes, it's hard work, but it's almost always work that's needed and the finished product is worth every change you make.

Usually, too, the editor gives you very detailed notes that help you work your way through the issues to the finished product.

Remember this--because it's very important. What can make you or break you as a writer is your ability to handle revisions with a good attitude and a strong work ethic. It's not that you won't complain to your CP or your family about having to gut your book. But editors are there to help you make the most of your story, and how you approach their revisions can be the difference between being a writer they want to work with and being a writer who nobody wants to work with.

Yes, they want a great story. But there are more people writing great stories than there are sometimes slots for. It's in your own best interest to be the kind of writer an editor wants to work with rather than a writer an editor dreads working with.

(And Jeanie, I'm not directing this at you personally--I'm just sort of taking a tangent in my answer to this question to address something that I think all writer need to know about working with editors).

Paula said...

Callie, I could edit forever. That's actually one of the good things about being on a deadline--it forces you to stop poking and prodding and turn the book in so you can start on something else.

I think that we as writers need to have a heirarchy of editing needs. ;) The foremost thing you absolutely have to get right is the story. Is the story itself strong enough to sustain reader interest? Do the protagonists make us root for them? Do we believe the villain might win if the protagonists can't meet their goals? Does the romance make sense? Do we believe these characters are in love?

Grammar and spelling should be as good as you can get it, but no editor is going to turn down a good book because there's the occasional typo or you mistook "affect" for "effect." You should learn rules of grammar and spelling and do your very best to turn in a clean, correct manuscript. But it's much more important to get the story right.

You also get a second chance to get it right even after you've sold the book. At Harlequin, at least, I see the book twice more after I turn it in. First, I get the editor's line edits and the copy proofer's edits. I can make more edits here, if something really strikes me as wrong. Then, finally, I have the Author Alterations edit, which is where I see what's been typeset to go to print. I can make changes on that copy, too, although I try to only edit that which is obviously, unmistakably wrong at this point, because each change at the Author Alternation step makes it more likely that a mistake can happen in the typesetting stage.

So, long story short--yes, I'm a compulsive self-editor, and my editor is always complimentary of how clean my writing is by the time it gets to her. But you still have to reach the point when you can let the manuscript go and start something new.

Christy Reece said...

Fabulous post, Paula! Other than a few minor differences, I agree that writing single title and category are very similar.

I so admire category writers for being able to have a fully developed story in 60,000 words. So far, my shortest book is right under 100,000 words and I still fear I've missed saying something!

I'm in the midst of writing three synopses for my next trilogy. Though only one is due on March 1, I'm trying to get all three done. It's called getting the pain over with as quickly as possible.

I have a new book coming out in a couple of weeks, and despite my need to concentrate on the synopses, I find myself consumed with thoughts of it. Do you feel increased anxiety when you have a new release?

Congrats on your newest book. Just bought it a couple of days ago!

Jeanie said...

Thanks, Paula. I will bear your words of wisdom in mind!

Crystal-Rain Love said...

Great post, Paula! Thank you for dispelling the myth taht writing is "the easiest job on the planet". How long does it take you on average to finish writing a book? Do you find it getting shorter? I used to take a year , now I can in 3-4 months if I'm a good girl ( - ;

Gwen Hernandez said...

Great post, Paula. Thanks for taking time to answer all the questions.

Paula said...

Christy, in reverse order--yes, I do get obsessed with books coming out, especially since mine don't stay on the shelves that long. So I really want to be sure to get the word out about my books so people remember to look for them before they're gone.

And as for your comment about the minor differences in procedure between category and single title, I'd be curious to know what the differences in your experience are, and anything else you'd like to share about writing single title, since I've never done that.

Paula said...

Rain, I can generally write a book in about 3 months. I think if I wrote full time, I might be able to cut that to a month, but that would still be pushing it.

Paula said...

You're more than welcome, Gwen.

And, y'all, keep the questions coming. I remember when I was unpublished, I had a million questions about everything from submissions to what happens after the sale to what The Call is like. I can answer questions about Intrigue specifically and other lines more generally. So don't be shy. There's no such thing as a stupid question.

Christine said...

Thank you for sharing your insights. I really appreciate it and having written a category, I can say it's tough! I'm not published, yet. But am playing with going ST because it opens a few more agent doors. I'd LOVE to zip between both lengths to be honest. I love writing short, but the ST is fun, too.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Paula! I loved Case File : Canyon Creek, Wyoming !! Pimped it out to my Mom and all of her crew of friends. Sent them some of your bookmarks so they know the next one is coming out. ]

Though I'm not pubbed I know what you mean about working full-time and trying to find the time to write. Makes you crazy sometimes.

I am agented and my question is do most agents suggest revisions before they try to shop a book? How deeply do agents get involved in the revision process, if at all?

And do editors sometimes make suggestions or put forth changes that you just can't do?

Paula said...

Regarding your questions about agents, Louisa, it varies from agent to agent. (I don't have an agent, by the way). I was reading the blog of an agent yesterday who was clear about wanting to be an active part of a writer's career, including story consultation, etc. I've seen other agents who aren't that interested in being your book doctor--they leave that up to you. So it's a matter of personalities, and that's why it's important to ask those kinds of questions when you're still trying to decide about hiring an agent.

Editors do sometimes ask you to do things you don't think are right for your book. My editor has a few times. I fought for what I thought would make or break my manuscript, but other things I made concessions on. It's a give and take situation.

Cari Hislop said...

Paula, thank you for that link to Brenda Hiatt's website! That's exactly what I wanted to know. I feel like a hole in my brain has been filled. Happy writing!!!!