Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reputation is All We Have

Elisabeth asked about how my Alias books came to be. It's a long story, and not one I even know all the answers to. But the one-word explanation is simple: Reputation.

That sounds so simple, yet it covers so many tiny details of a writer's life. It isn't just your writing ability, though that has to be good, but how you manage the business of writing. Can you meet a deadline? Do you know the subject? Can you produce an outline, and then stick to it (within reason)? Can you take editorial suggestion? Are you willing to rewrite/edit to editor or licensor requirements?

All these things, and more, go into a writer's reputation. And it is that reputation that makes someone offer you a job.

For me, that offer came in the form of an email invitation to pitch ideas for Alias novels. I don't know how I happened to be on that invitation list; someone asked someone else for suggestions, and my name came up. I have a few guesses - editors I had worked with in the past - but I don't know specifically. However it happened, the invitation was extended, with a warning that the books would need to be done quickly.

Now, here's my shameful secret. Up to that point, I had not watched the show. Not because I wasn't interested, but because I ration the number of shows to which I can be addicted at any one time, and my list was pretty full. But I had heard very good things from people whose opinions I trusted, and it sounded like fun. I wrote back immediately, saying I was interested, and ran to the video store. For a solid week, I watched every episode I could get my hands on, read online episode summaries, read the two outlines the editor provided for books already under contract, and basically immeresed myself in the show.

At the end of that week, I knew I had to write for Alias - the character, her family and friends, had me hooked. I had some ideas, some things I thought would be fun and interesting to do with the characters, and I bounced them off the editor. He liked one idea, and I set to work writing an outline. Within a very few days, he had a complete outline on his desk.

So, there's the first parts. I produced an outline, showing that I knew the property, and I did it in a short time frame, showing I could work under deadline. I also committed to write the book in a few weeks, if the outline was approved.

This is where the courtship rituals of tie-in fiction come in. Your outline must be approved by the editor, and then by whomever owns the property - in this case, ABC. For my Star Trek work, it was Paramount; for Mage Knight, it was Wiz Kids. Steve has been through this ritual with Wiz Kids, Marvel, Conan Properties, Paramount - the list is long and varied.

Anyway, there were changes from ABC. I rewrote the outline, it went back through channels, and eventually I had an approved outline for Strategic Reserve -- and 10 weeks to write the complete novel, while working a full-time job, and with the RWA National Conference (a story for a different time) in the middle, along with a long-planned family reunion. I spent nights and weekends in my office, and I wrote while traveling, and I turned the manuscript in on time.

When the inevitable edits came down through channels, I did the rewrite and sent it back. On time, and without being difficult. The result is on bookstore shelves now, and I am proud of what I accomplished.

The second book didn't go quite as smoothly, at first. ABC didn't like the outline the editor passed on, but they liked a minor sub-plot. It took a while, but I managed to take that sub-plot and make it a novel, which will be out in December. once again, I ended up doing the writing in a couple months, still with a day job and the usual distractions. But I did it on time, on target, and I tried very hard to be easy to work with.

Now, with ALIAS off the air, there are no plans for additional books in that series. But I have my reputation, and some time in the future, when an editor is looking for a writer for a project, my name may come up again. And when it does, the editors I have worked with, will have good things to say.

In the end, that reputation is the most important thing we, as writers, have.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Free Books!

Well, not so much. Today I will burst another bubble, I hope. But there's a good surprise at the end of this, I promise.

See, everybody thinks writers have huge stores of their books, which they are happy to pass out to everyone they meet. Sometimes, they are offended that you don't give them a free book.

What part of "I write for a living" do these people not understand?

You see, the publisher pays me for a story, I deliver it, they publish it, and expect to sell books, thereby recovering the money they paid me, paying their expenses, and maybe making a profit. This shouldn't be an obscure concept - it's the same one the grocery store and gas station operate under.

So why would I expect someone to buy a book if I gave it away for free? Frankly, I wouldn't. But I receive a very limited number of copies, and if I gave one to everyone who wanted one, I wouldn't have any left for myself. So I limit my give-aways. My parents always get an autographed copy, and my in-laws (who are some of my biggest fans, and how cool is that?).

Still, I am more generous than many writers. I keep a "loaner" copy at work, so friends can borrow it and read it. I donate copies to fund raisers. I love being able to put a book in someone's hands, and know that they will read it. Unfortunately, I still need to convince my publishers that I'm a good investment, and that people will buy my books, so I can't give them away. And they don't give me that many, anyway.

So, try to understand when your favorite writer expects you to buy his or her book. It's how they pay their bills, and support themselves while they write the next book.

But, just this once, I am going to give away a book. I have a copy of STRATEGIC RESERVE on my shelf that will go to the best comment posted in the next week or so. No strings, nothing to buy, no coupons to redeem, or forms to fill out. Just post a comment, if you want a shot at a free book. At the end of the month, I'll pick my favorite - yeah, it's completely subjective, but we writers have to get a few perks! - and mail you an autographed book.

C'mon, what have you got to lose?

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Waiting Game; or, I Make Stuff Up

Well, the Alias manuscript went off to the editor, and the YA I was revising went off to my agent. Now I get to play The Waiting Game.

Let me admit, right up front, that I should simply be writing something else, and not even thinking about this stuff. And that is pretty much what I am doing. But The Waiting Game is a part of the dirty underbelly of writing, and something we all have to learn to live with.

When a new writer finishes a story, or a novel, or a poem, or whatever, you send it out into the world. You mail your story to an editor or agent. You know that it's going into the slush pile, and it may be months before you hear anything back. But this happens even when you aren't a new writer.

The book I just turned in (see cover below) will be my sixth published novel. Now, that might sound impressive - unless you want to compare it to some of the writers I know, who have 50 or 60 or 80 books to their credit. But comparing careers is apples and oranges (a rant for another time), and I try not to do it.

I suspect most people think once you have an editor, or an agent, that you don't have to wait. Want to know a deep, dark secret? It ain't so! Oh, maybe if your name is Stephen King, or John Grisham. Writers at that level are earning a lot of money for their agents and publishers, and thereby earning fast responses. Writers at my level, well, not so much.

But here's the problem. As a writer, it's my job to make shit up. And when I'm playing The Waiting Game, the temptation sneaks in to make up some shit that explains why I am waiting. Being - like so many writers - terminally insecure, I seem to make up some pretty awful shit.

Like, the editor hates the book, no matter how enthusiastic she was about the proposal. She has decided the book is hopeless, I'm hopeless, and she is looking for someone to fix the horrible mess that landed on her desk.

Like, my agent hates me. She has read my revisions, and thinks I destroyed the promising start she saw in the first draft. She had no hope of selling the steaming pile that this manuscript has become, and she despairs of what to say about it.

Now, because I have been doing this for a few years, I recognize that this is ridiculous. The truth is probably a lot closer to something like: The editor has five other books to put into production this week, six more slots that must be assigned before the first of the month, three rewrites to read. Four licensors have finally released approvals on pending projects, and she has to get them into contracts, her assistant just quit to move to North Dakota, the mail room lost two contracts, and yesterday's lunch sat too long in the delivery cart, and she is now sicker than a dog. (And really, how sick is a dog? What does that actually mean?)

The agent is training a new assistant (her previous one is in North Dakota, waiting for the editor's assistant to join him), her biggest client just got a six-book deal with staggered delivery dates, twenty-four payment dates, and a publicity tour, all of which have to be negotiated before the contract can be signed, another client is months late, and she is doing damage control with the publisher, she agreed to read submissions from eight potential clients, including two who have offers on the table, and her boss is on maternity leave.

See? I just made up all that shit. I have no idea whether any of it is true. But I do know that any one of those items is much more likely than the first bunch. My editor does not hate me. My agent has not given up hope that I will ever write anything salable. (Given that I have six published novels, that one is just plain silly. Doesn't mean it won't cross my mind!) No disasters are looming.

But, because I am a trained professional maker-up-of-shit, this is what I do, when I am playing The Waiting Game.

Now it's time for me to stop griping, and go do some productive making-shit-up. That is, time to get back to writing!