After the Draft: Episode IX, Myke Cole
Good morning friends, lurkers, and mortal enemies keeping tabs on me. While Let Sleeping Gods Lie cools its heels in a new agent’s hands for a while, I’ve brought in an excellent guest post from the indomitable Myke Cole! For those of you who don’t know, Myke has been making a big splash these last couple of years in the urban fantasy genre with his Shadow Ops trilogy, the final installment of which, Breach Zone, drops tomorrow. Just go ahead and order the whole trilogy now. You’ll thank me later. In addition to being a rising star in the genre book world, Myke is an officer in the United States Coast Guard, and works cyber security for the NYPD. He also has a pet fish that has more twitter followers than I do.
I asked Myke a couple of months ago if he wouldn’t mind sharing his experience bringing his first book to publication in a guest post. What he wrote wasn’t so much a post as a manifesto. If you have any inkling, any desire at all to become an author, you want to read the whole thing through to the end. It is blunt, loud, profane, and above all, honest, just like Myke himself. Enjoy!
Nothing To It But To Do It
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess why you’re reading this. It’s not out of an abundance of affection for some blocky dude with a buzz-cut, hunkered over a laptop in Brooklyn. You know I’m a writer, a published writer at that. You’re wondering what the secret is. You want to see how I did it.
You’re looking for the magic key.
Well, let’s get to the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front, as we say in the guard). There is no magic key. There are no gatekeepers. There’s a tiny sliver of who-you-know and a pinch of luck, but the lion’s share isn’t rocket science. It’s just work. Endless, relentless, grinding work. You push until you can’t possibly push anymore, and then you dig deep and find a way to push some more.
There’s no secret. Want to be a writer? Fucking WRITE.
Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll tell how I did it.
I did it the wrong way.
When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I immediately went about it bckwards. Instead of focusing on my craft, I focused on everything else: I networked. I made connections. I read blog after blog to figure out how others had gotten their first book deal. I read posts much like this one.
That was a bad move. Because until you have a dynamite manuscript, a novel so good that it competes with the giants in the genre, nothing will help you land a book deal. Quality is king in this business. Bullshit walks. I would have probably got my first book deal years earlier if I’d just concentrated on learning how to write an amazing book. Instead, I heeded the wrong-headed advice of more than a few writers on the Internet. In retrospect, most of these advice-givers were writers focusing on short stories as a path to novel writing, which makes no sense to me. More on that in a minute.
But I was young and impressionable. So, I paid attention. The steps they laid out were these:
– Write lots of short stories. Get good at them.
– Submit to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Finish on the podium.
– Your WOTF podium finish will give you the credit you need to get associate membership in SFWA. It will also give you a cover letter credit that will get you out of the slush pile at the major magazines.
– Get your 3 major magazine/anthology short story sales, and get active membership in SFWA. This will get you into the closed parties.
– Go to the closed parties and meet your agent.
– Agent signs you, sells you novel, mission accomplished.
There is SO much wrong with the steps I’ve just listed. For one thing, short stories are a different medium than novels. Developing skill at one does not necessarily translate into the other. For another thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly “closed” SFWA party. If some effort is made at closing it, you can have a friend get you in. We’re geeks. We don’t have bull-necked bouncers at the door checking membership cards.
But most important is this: If you write an AWESOME novel, and you have no short story credits to you name, and you’ve never won WOTF, and you don’t know industry people, your novel will still sell. Because it is awesome.
The myths about gatekeepers is a bunch of bullshit that people spin to try to get themselves off the hook. It’s easier to say “but the gatekeepers will never let me in,” throw up your hands and refuse to try. Or you can try the “talent” myth. “I don’t have a talent for this, so why bother?” Lock that crap up. Bleed until you have it right. Write an INCREDIBLE novel. It will sell. The so-called “gatekeepers” are people with decades of experience picking winning horses. They don’t pass on manuscripts they are confident will make their company a ton of money because they don’t personally know the author. Or because the author isn’t in SFWA. Or because the author doesn’t have a strong social media platform.
Bullshit walks. But great writing sells.
So, yeah. Those steps are all totally wrong. And I followed them anyway. To the letter. Every. Single. Step.
And whaddya know, it worked.
I firmly believe it delayed my first book deal by at least 5 years.
So, let me give you some alternate steps:
– Come up with an idea for a novel. Not a short story. Not a novella. A novel. Because you want to be a novelist. Because maybe one person on this earth makes their living writing short stories, and it isn’t you.
– Focus on the characters. Stories are always about people. Make sure that your characters are complicated and fascinating. Consume media that focuses on character. Read romance novels. Watch The Wire. Think about how complicated your own goals and hangups are. Make sure that kind of thing is making it on to the page. A book with an amazing plot and wooden characters sucks. A book with a weak plot and incredible characters is amazing.
– Write the book. The whole book. Not a partial. Not an outline. The whole thing. Make sure it’s at least 80,000 words long. That’s approximately 320 double-spaced pages.
– Give yourself permission to write a lousy first draft. If you edit as you go, fine, so long as excessive agonizing over minutiae doesn’t prevent you from actually finishing the thing.
– Do not freak out over the font. Or the margins. Or whether you’re using “proper manuscript format.” Nobody really cares about that crap. Jut make sure it’s clear and readable. No editor every rejected a great book because the italics were actually italicized instead of underlined.
– Print the Turkey City Lexicon. Read it. Then, burn it. Invent a machine that burns things that have already been burned and burn it again.
– Take risks. Every major success in the arts has been an outlier. To play it safe is to commit yourself to mediocrity.
– When you have written the entire book, not part of it, but all of it, take a break. Start thinking about people who might be able to give you feedback. I would select beta-readers thusly:
- I would first look for people whose careers are where I want mine to be. If I want to be a published novelist, I would try to find a published novelist.
- If I couldn’t find a person with a career that’s where I want to go, I will seek out insightful, critical readers who don’t blow sunshine and who give advice that has you slapping your forehead and thinking, “that’s so obvious! Why didn’t I see that?”
- Don’t pick too many beta-readers. There’s such a thing as too much advice. I use two beta-readers. At most, three.
– Pay attention to the feedback, but also remember that this is your book. You are free to disregard it.
– Sit down and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. Polish and perfect and obsess. CONTROL POINT’s 19th draft was the one that went to press.
– Be fully prepared to have to throw away an entire novel. Accept the possibility that it can be unfixable. Accept the possibility, no, the probability, that you will have to throw away hundreds of thousands of words until you come up with ones you can be truly proud of.
– And this: the hardest part – accept the possibility of ultimate failure. Accept that you could pour 20 years of your life into this pursuit only to come away empty-handed. It is a real possibility, and if you can’t take pleasure in the work itself, if you can’t find something worthwhile in the journey, then run away and do not look back. Not everybody wins in this arena. The odds are long. They are not ever in your favor.
– And this: It never gets easier. When you finally do get that book deal, nothing will change. The grind will still be there. You will have to feed the beast for the rest of your life. Every novel is a debut. Every writer is one bad book away from the end of their career.
Here’s the thing. I felt a joint come unglued, a switch flip, when I finally crossed the threshold. But it wasn’t a networking switch. I never learned a secret handshake. The barriers fell away when I stared defeat in the face and smiled back at it. There was nothing else I wanted to do. Everything else had been stripped away. I realized at that point that I had some 50 years or so left to keep trying, and if I couldn’t pull it off in that time, well, the worms slowly digesting my remains could put up with the taste of disappointment.
When my goal was to get published, I didn’t. When my goal became to write a great novel, I did.
The magic key was this: I focused on being good above all else.
Get to work. I’m with you.