Mark Terry

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Writer's 10 Commandments

November 3, 2006
I. THOU SHALT NOT COVET THEY NEIGHBOR'S CAREER
Yeah, Joe got a 3-book contract or Allison got picked up by four book clubs, and Barry has 8 or 9 foreign rights sales, and for God sakes, Joe and Lynn are bestsellers in Poland...

There's always someone higher on the food chain and lower. This will drive you nuts.

II. THOU SHALT NOT COVET THEY NEIGHBOR'S LITERARY AGENT
Yeah, Rob's agent got him a 6-figure deal and Joe's agent got that 3-book deal, and look at the house her agent hooked them up with, and that movie option...

Yeah, agents have quirks, no doubt about it. And yours may not be working for you. But be careful before you cut and run to make sure if the things that aren't working are your agent's fault or yours.

III. THOU SHALT ATTEND TO BUSINESS
In your office, at Starbucks or wherever, writing, you're an artist. Once you submit the manuscript to a publisher, you've become a business person. Pay attention to the business aspects of writing, whether they be contracts, accounting, taxes, or promotion--yes, promotion and marketing is an aspect of any type of business. How much and what kind you do is between you and you, but at least be aware that almost all businesses require some form of marketing and sales.

IV. SHOU SHALT RESPECT THY CRAFT.
We may be artists, but story and art are the cargo--our craft is what puts the ship together in the first place, and if we don't learn how to write well, our craft might spring a leak and sink along with all our cargo. And don't get complacent. Even the sharpest blade gets dull if you don't take care of it.

V. THOU SHALT RESPECT THY TRADITION
Are you a genre writer? Do you write thrillers, mysteries, romance, SF, fantasy or something else? There is a huge body of work before you in which many of the conventions were created and refined. Ignore them at your peril. Readers (and editors and agents) when presented with a mystery, have certain expectations. Does that mean you can be generic? No. The trick is to write something recognizable but fresh. Original is good, but it's possible to be so original that there's no market for your book. Pushing the envelope is good. Shoving it through the shredder is questionable.

VI. THOU SHALT STRETCH THY WINGS
Go back to the art thing. It's easy, once you are successful at something--your book gets published, for instance--that you do the same thing over and over again. It's a trap. The same but different is good. But be careful of eating yourself and going back to the same well too many times. Making things better, deepening your characters, making your writing crisper, cleaner, more elegant, are all good. And bringings in other elements or trying something new are all good.

VII. THOU SHALT REMEMBER IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT MONEY
If you make a living as a writer, it can be hard to forget that you didn't necessarily start doing this to make money. There is joy in writing and for those writers likely to make a living at it, there is a compulsion to communicate, to play with words, live within the beautiful dream that is the story. Keep track of that, because in many ways the money isn't nearly as satisfying.

VIII. THOU SHALT BE MINDFUL OF THE BUSINESS TRADITIONS
Publishing has its traditions, its way of doing things. Book advances and agent fees and how and what is communicated to whom. We touched on this a bit when discussing basketed accounting, on how if enough writers and agents accept it, it becomes the norm. Be aware that many writers and agents have fought to make things the norm and this is good for all writers, and by saying, "Who cares as long as I get published," you're hurting all writers and ultimately yourself by going along with bad contracts and crappy royalties and bizarre option clauses. This may require you to get help, to get an agent, to get advice from a writers' organization or union. But above all, try to educate yourself on what the norm is in the business.

IX. THOU SHALT HELP THEY NEIGHBOR
The internet has helped writers communicate. There probably isn't a writer out there who's "successful," (whatever that is) who hasn't gone through all the things you've gone through--dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of rejections, self-doubt, snarky agent or editor comments, the belittling by family and friends, publishers going under, etc. Help out how you can. It's a tough business. That doesn't mean you need to put yourself at risk by reading every manuscript that comes your way or by introducing every writer who asks to your agent or editor. That's impossible. It means being accessible and willing to respond and help where you can.

X. THOU SHALT KEEP PERSEPCTIVE
Ultimately, it's just a book. We're entertainers, the court jesters of the modern age. There are precious few writers so famous that the average man-on-the-street would recognize them in a restaurant--Stephen King, maybe JK Rowling, possibly John Grisham. We're not curing cancer, solving world peace or feeding the hungry. And as far as the entertainment world goes, we're minor players. A crappy cable TV show has a larger audience on any given night than most books will have over the author's entire lifetime. Most network TV shows have a larger audience than copies sold of The Da Vinci Code. Life will go on without us and if we all stopped writing books today, there would still be plenty to read.

Best,
Mark Terry

4 Comments:

Blogger Allison Brennan said...

I like your writer's commandments. They dovetail nicely with what Joe wrote today over at Newbie.

I particularly like #9 and #10.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

#10 in particular, Allison, I think. We work so hard for so long to get there (wherever there is) that we can lose perspective.

Mark

2:12 PM  
Blogger Jana Oliver said...

Mark
Oh yeah, #10 hits home like a solid punch to the gut. Welcome to the real world where folks can do a hundred other things than read your book.

Perspective. It's an important key to a successful career as a court jester.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Like the original Ten, these are great rules! They should be posted over every writer's desk.
Thanks Mark!

8:44 AM  

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