Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Things That Make Me Say Uh-oh

By Deborah Sharp

If only I had $20 for every time someone told me, ''I have a great idea for a book!''

Some of Midnight Ink's more experienced authors are well-accustomed to that refrain. But our once-small stable has quite a few newbies -- recently signed, about to have their first book published, or still learning the writerly ropes, like me. In the whopping seven months I've logged as a published novelist since Mama Does Time debuted, I can say: I've heard it a lot.

Being seen as an expert by aspiring writers takes some getting used to. It's flattering, of course, and I'm usually pleased to offer advice. But it can also be frustrating. Here are some things that make me go uh-oh when an aspiring writer speaks.

Me: ''So, have you written anything yet?''
Aspiring Author: "Nope, it's all in my head.''

Me: ''You should join a writers' group. It's a good opportunity to get feedback on your work.''
AA: ''Oh, I don't want anyone else to know about what I'm writing. They might steal my idea.''

Me: "What's your main character like?''
AA: "Well, there's not just one main character. I want the story to unfold through five different main characters.''

Me: ''You've got the makings of a nice story, but nothing happens in Chapter 1.''
AA: "Yeah, but ....''

Me: ''I'd be glad to look at your first 10 pages.''
AA: ''You really need to see the whole book to understand the first chapter. It's 600 pages.''

I may make a little laminated card to hand out, Top Five Tips for beginning writers:

1. Get something -- anything -- down on paper. For 15 years, a sports reporter pal has been describing to me what could be a wonderful memoir about small-town life and healing childhood grief through baseball. Trouble is, it's still in his head. He fears it won't be any good. Well, first drafts seldom are. That's what re-writing is for.

2. People in a writers' group are extremely unlikely to steal your idea. Plagiarism is rare. That's why it makes big headlines if it happens.

3. Choose one character to be your readers' eyes and ears; they're called ''main'' characters for a reason. Some seasoned authors seamlessly meld multiple points of view. I can't; you probably can't either. Not yet. Would you put a toddler taking his first steps onto a circus high wire?

4. Banish Yeah, but ... from your lexicon. As in "Yeah, but the story really gets interesting in Chapter 5.'' Sorry, but it needs to be interesting in Chapter 1. Some things that are interesting: Action. Conflict. Trouble. Some that aren't: Long descriptions of characters' traits or backstory without them saying or doing anything.

5. Make your first chapter work hard. It sets the book's tone. It introduces your main character. It has action to propel the plot and make your reader go on to Chapter 2. (PS: 600 pages is about twice as long as your first book should be).

How about you? What are your Uh-oh danger signs? Or, what tip helped you as an aspiring author? (For me, it was ''Put the body in Chapter 1.'')


Jessica Lourey said...

That really is the best advice--if you want to be a writer, you should write.

The most heartbreaking uh-oh moment of mine was at a signing. A mother and her 14-year-old son came up and asked me to look at their manuscript. I politely declined (if you have a publishable manuscript, you want an agent to look at it), and the mother told me she just wanted generic feedback because they alread had a publisher. Had in fact taken a second mortgage on their house to pay the $10,000 up front the publisher required.

That's a big, huge uh-oh: you never ever pay a publisher or agent anything up front. You go into the boat with them, and if the book makes money, you rise together, and if it doesn't, it still shouldn't cost you a thing. I tried to convince the family of this, but I don't think I got through. They were too blinded by the idea of having a son who was a Writer.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

My top 3 "uh ohs":

1. "My idea is just like yours, but better." Uh oh! And that's not a worried about competition "uh oh."

2. "As soon as I get the time to write ..." Uh oh!

3. "I don't need an agent or a publisher, I can do a better job myself." Big whopping uh oh!

Alan Orloff said...

What kinds of books do you read?

AA: Mostly nonfiction--how-to books on car repair, to be exact--but I'm planning to write a series of mysteries.


How long is your first draft?

AA: First draft? You mean there's supposed to be more than one?


AA: Well. after I put in the punctuation...

Double Uh-oh

Deb, if you get those cards printed, put me down for 100 please.

Terri Thayer said...

At a party, I told a guy I was writing a mystery. He said he wanted to be a writer, too, but didn't know what genre. I asked him what he liked to read.

"Read? I don't read," was the reply.


Cricket McRae said...

I don't write, but I have great idea for a book -- you're so gonna want to use this! Let me tell you all about it ...

Uh oh.

Keith Raffel said...

"I have an idea for a book, just a germ of one, and I don't know how it will turn out."

Uh-oh. That's me talking to myself!

Gayle Carline said...

Can those cards come with little boxing gloves to box their ears, too?

What I hear most is from other moms who tell me they are "thinking about writing children's books, because they're easy to write." Even my elderly father told me this after my (adult) mystery was published - and he never spent five minutes playing with his kids.

I think I hear the sound of children's authors out there, banging their heads against a wall.

Gayle Carline

Deborah Sharp said...

Do lawyers, artists, or auto mechanics ever hear: "I know I could (defend a criminal, paint a masterpiece, rebuild a transmission) like you, if only I had the time?''

Thanks to all for your uh-ohs ... And, Jess, how sad. That poor family!

G.M. Malliet said...

Gayle - Good comment. Writing for children is a talent, like brain surgery, but there is a tendency for people to think it must be easy because the words are short. But then, look at Beatrix Potter. Her books were really quite sophisticated and very, very funny. I think the best children's books are enjoyed as much by adults.

Julia Buckley said...

My favorites came after the big Harry Potter boom, when every other person was going to write a book "like Harry Potter, but slightly different."

Those are the people who assume that writing will make you rich.