Christy Yorke , author's bio.
I've got a few statistics for you. 95% of writers carry on their most interesting conversations in their heads. 70% of them are impossible to live with. 85% prefer make-believe people to their flesh and blood friends, and thus are not considered very good at parties. 40% are manic, 40% depressive, and the rest don’t know what they are-they’re on deadline, or between contracts, or cursing the day they ever thought they could write.
All right, I made those up. But I can vouch for this statistic: 90% of writing is hell; 10% is rapture. The first thirty drafts of my novels are schlock, but draft thirty one is poetry. Getting published is torturous, ego-bashing, dream-smashing melodrama; staying published is torturous, ego-bashing, dream-smashing work. So what am I doing here?
The answer is: The only thing I could ever do. I believe I could have been a pretty good architect. I’ve designed two of my own houses, and loved the solid satisfaction of placing a wall here, a faucet there, and then not letting the contractor budge an inch from my plans. If I could go back and start over, I’d be an architect. I’d work in one of those concrete-heavy, steel-framed offices and wear clothes I’m actually prohibited from washing. I’d have that rarest of combinations—artistry and income. Heaven.
But I can’t go back and, the trouble is, I don’t want to. Writing is a trap. That 10% of rapture hooks you, and you become an addict. There is nothing quite so awful as writing badly, and there is nothing as fulfilling as writing well. I hate the business of writing, the agonizing quest for publication, then the subsequent emphasis not on my obvious brilliance, but on why I’m getting smashed by Nora Roberts, why sales and marketing cannot fit me into one of their neat slots. I hate the writing itself, the actual composition of story, the million and one little plot lines I forgot to put in or have to go back and change. I hate the first few rewrites, adding characters, deleting characters, realizing I haven’t given Jane a job to support herself, and that Jake has somehow gotten down a mountain without walking, and that my most perceptive scenes are beautiful but irrelevant, and will have to go. But boy, I love that final edit, when the story is set, the characters make sense, and all I have to do is slow down and make the words sing. A year of frustration and dread and absolute fear that I cannot do this suddenly subsides into pure, slow-motion pleasure. Instead of three hundred pages to worry about, all I have to deal with is one line of one paragraph, and that’s as easy as loving someone. It comes without thinking, and often with a passion I hadn’t even known I was capable of.
I don’t want to leave my mark on the world. I have no desire for immortality. And God knows I’m not in it for the money. (What money? You mean, I’m supposed to get paid?) I write because there are very few professions that can promise rapture, even 10% of the time. I write because it is hard, and when I’m old I can say I made a million mistakes, but I didn’t let anyone beat me. There are only small, solitary victories-one perfect word, one reader’s trust—and that is enough. If you want to be a writer, first make sure there’s nothing else you could do instead, and then be sure to hold on tight. 95% of writers end up a little bit twisted, but most will tell you they enjoyed the ride.
I know a few things about getting published. Not as much as you might think. I am the worst kind of business person—I want people to like me and I can’t stand conflict. Needless to say, I stink at negotiations. Paying 15% to an agent seems a small price to pay for staying out of the fight.
However, writers hoping to get published often ask me the following questions, and I’ll answer them as best I can.
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Ideas are not the problem. Ideas are everywhere—in books, newspapers, television, gossip. Song of the Seals arose after a conversation with a friend. She’d been listening to Dr. Laura when a woman called in admitting she and her husband had sold their baby for enough money to open a business. I can come up with a hundred interesting characters or plot points, but none of these are anything close to novels. So what if a husband and wife sold their baby? It’s horrible, but it’s not a book. It’s the so what that makes a novel. A husband and wife sell their baby and then what happens? They open a business and then what happens? They feel horrible guilt and then what happens? So what does it all mean, why are we turning the pages, who do we care about? A husband and wife selling their baby are not sympathetic. But a woman whose husband sold her baby out from under her might be. A woman who can’t get over the loss of her child is tragic, but also more pitiful than heroic. A woman who has turned that tragedy into a crusade for other people’s lost children is a hero we will root for.
- Should I get an agent?
- Absolutely, if you’re anything like me. By that I mean shy, anxious, unable to articulate your needs and ideas on the spot. Some authors are fabulous at negotiating their own deals, but these people are naturally gregarious, nervy, and confident—another species. I like having an agent as a buffer. She can handle all the nuts and bolts, the dirty work, while I chitchat with my editor, talk about my kids, the weather, and basically play the good guy. Plus, emotionally I need an agent, someone who believes in me, who keeps telling me everything’s going to work out. I can depend on her knowledge, expertise, and faith, while I concentrate on the writing.
- How do I get an agent?
- With persistence and LOTS of submissions. Getting an agent is considered as hard as getting a publisher. I got my share of rejections before landing one, and some were not kind. Pick up the latest Writer’s Market or The Insider’s Guide to Literary Agents to get listings of agents and what they’re looking for. If your book is like another author’s, find their agent and submit to them. Don’t waste your time trying to sell a horror novel to an agent who doesn’t like horror. Write a good, complete synopsis, polish your chapters, and work at making your query letters jump off the page.
- What constitutes a good synopsis?
- I have no idea. This is not my specialty and, frankly, it seems to vary from agent to agent, and editor to editor. Some want two pages, some want 12. Some want every plot point, some only the highlights. I generally write a 2 to 4 page synopsis, covering the crucial plot points of both the main and supporting characters. I like to put in some character background as well, since my novels rely on this. Synopses must also tell the ending. This is not the place for mystery or a hook.
- What about a query letter?
- On the other hand, a query letter is a good place for a hook. Read the backs of paperbacks, the jackets of hardcovers. When something grabs you, figure out why. When talking about your story, start off with a hook and end with one. When giving information about yourself, include anything that relates to the novel, any publishing credits that show your professionalism and ability. When I approached my current agent, she asked for previous rejections on the novel, which I submitted. This might seem counter-productive, but many of the rejections were positive, and as it turned out, she was looking for an author to represent over the long haul, not a particular book. She eventually sold a different book. Be honest. Be charming if you’re charming. Be funny if you’re a comic. Let your personality and optimism come through.
- What kind of writing schedule should I follow?
- Whatever one you can. Just set one and follow it. My son is in preschool every morning from 9:00 to 12:00, so that’s when I write. Once he reaches first grade, I’ll have six hours, from 9:00 to 3:00. Goodness knows what I’ll do with myself. The key is to set a schedule and stick to it. I find when I’m working on a first draft, the best thing for me is to write every day, seven days a week, even if only for an hour. I need the consistency. In later drafts, I cut back to five days a week, but I tend to last longer each session. Every writer is different. Some are night owls, some have full time jobs and families to tend to and can only write in fits and starts, five minutes here, ten there. You have to work within the constraints of your life.
- How do you overcome the blank page or blank computer screen?
- This is a difficult one. Especially during a first draft, which is a particularly horrific experience for me, I wake up dreading writing. I think of a million other more enjoyable things I can do—laundry, picking up dog poop, waxing my legs. But after I drop off the kids, read my email, pour the coffee, I fall back on the kind of willpower I needed to stop smoking. I force myself into the chair. There’s no one there to make me do it, but I’m self-motivated by a number of thoughts—how lucky I am to work at home and how quickly things could change if I don’t get going, how depressed I feel when I don’t work, how wimpy it would be to chicken out of writing. I get through it by saying I only have to write one paragraph. Just one measly paragraph, and it doesn’t matter how bad it is. I can always rewrite it later. Nine times out of ten, that one measly paragraph becomes two and then three and then, what the hell, I’ll just write the whole damn scene so that tomorrow I can do less. (All good writing rises up from the well of laziness, the anticipation of having to do less the next day.) I tend to average half a chapter (8 to 10 pages) a day. 8 to 10 pages, though EVERY DAY I go into it saying I’ll write only a paragraph. What a sucker.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
- What is the first thing I should do to get published?
- The first thing is write a great book. Once you’re sure it’s a great book, once you’re certain you couldn’t write it any better, find an agent. This could take anywhere from a week to years. Once you find an agent, they may want you to rewrite that great book a little. Some authors balk at this, insisting that an agent’s job is to sell the book, not edit it. I don’t know. I think you have to step back and decide if the arguments are valid, and just how much you trust this person’s opinion. If you make the required revisions, then you get the really annoying task of stepping back and letting your agent do her job. The submission process, like finding an agent, can take weeks or years. Some agents give up. Some stick with you indefinitely. Some have a lot of clout and can get their manuscripts read quickly, while others get stuck in a pile just slightly ahead of the unagented manuscripts. And while the submissions are being made, you go back to writing and write another great book. If you can, you focus so intently on that book, you hardly notice all the rejections coming in. Or, if you’re like me, you reach a point when all you can think about is the rejections and you start looking through the want ads. You stop writing and you snap at your husband and just when you think you’ll never make it, your agent calls and says "Congratulations." And the funny thing is, instead of shouting or clapping your hands, when you get off the phone, you put your head in your hands and cry. Writing is hard. Be certain it's the only thing you want to do.