NaNoCafe Notes

On Wednesday November 10, 2010, I was invited to speak to a group of NaNoWriMo participants as part of three Rockingham City Council sponsored NaNo Cafes. It was a great pleasure to be able to chat with local NaNo nuts. I’ve reproduced below some of the topics we talked about.

Know your market

If you have never read a book by a publisher you want to sign with, or an anthology by an editor you’d like to submit to, how can you possibly know what sort of thing they are looking for? What standard of work they are publishing? What quirks they may have as an editor that you could work to? Subscribe to a magazine you aspire to, buy an anthology by an editor you’re interested in, read novels from interesting publishers. While you’re at it, check out reputable awards in the genre you write, both Australian and international, and see the standard of the very best being published.

Read widely

And not just in your preferred genre, although that’s important too. Side note: I know of authors who say they never read in the genre they write in, which I find unfathomable – how can you know as a writer what tropes are being done to death if you never read your contemporaries, and how can you write successfully without knowing the roots of your genre? Back to the point. Read widely in other genres too. Some of the very best stories draw on influences from a wide variety of literature.

Make time to write

Once thing that NaNoWriMo does for authors is make them find time to write. The most frequent excuse I hear from (people who want to be) writers is “But I just don’t have time to write!” Here’s a scoop for you – no-one “has” time to write. People MAKE time to write. I know authors who get up at 4am to write, before they start their “real” day. Others disappear on writing retreats with no internet, no phones, no distractions, taking their holidays to write. If you WANT to write, you have to find the time to, and sometimes that means making choices about what you give up in order to get that time. Give up television, wake up an hour early each day, turn off the internet for an hour a day – find your “disposable time” and use it better.

Research your work

You don’t always have to write what you know but make sure you know what you write! Side note: don’t make the Bryce Courtenay mistake of making fiction sound like non fiction. Fact should underpin the story, not dominate it. And yes, fact applies to spec fic too. Back to the point. If you’re writing about horses but the closest you’ve come to a horse is the carousel at the park, first hand experience can’t be topped. Visit stables, farms, take some riding lessons if you can. If that’s not practical, talk to someone who has worked with horses. If you can’t manage that, at the very least, extensively research your topic! Don’t rely on the work of other fiction writers to inform your information – maybe THEY didn’t know a horse from a sheep either!

Give manuscripts time before revising

It’s amazing how many changes you’ll make if you let a manuscript sit for a few weeks or months before pulling it out and giving it a polish. You’ll find errors you’d missed, ways to tighten the story, places where the dialogue clunks and so much more. Time really gives you an opportunity to distance yourself from your baby before giving it another going over.

And speaking of polishing…

Draft. When you NaNo, the 50,000 words you produce are a draft. They are not, and never should be, a finished product. No-one writes perfectly the first time round and many great writers do three, four, five or more COMPLETE revisions of works before them deem them good enough to send out to a publisher. And then they wait for the revisions and edits suggested by the editor, should the manuscript be accepted.

Read your stories aloud

Okay, this one is a more for short stories; I don’t know many novellists who do it! Reading your work aloud forces you to read what is actually on the page, rather than what you THINK is on the page. There is a difference. You’ll find typos, incorrect punctuation, clunky prose and, most especially, dodgy dialogue. Well worth the time.

Read submission guidelines

They are there for a reason. Submission guidelines tell you what the editor/publisher is looking for. If they call for urban fantasy, don’t send hard scifi. If it’s a romance publisher, don’t send them a paranormal. Check length restrictions/requirements. Double check reading periods and put them in your calendar. Accept the fact that some markets won’t be suitable for your manuscript and look for ones that are. And related to this…

Keep track of your submissions

Check market/agent websites for usual submission times and query after that period – subs do go astray, but editors are busy people and don’t want to be answering your query two days after submissions close when the information about the reading process is easily accessible on their website.

And a final few points

* Good stories are part idea, part talent and mostly sheer hard work. Writing isn’t easy, and it’s not always rewarding, but if you’re a writer, you’ll do it anyway.

* Get used to rejection – very very few stories or manuscripts are accepted first go and many never find a home. Don’t take rejection personally – sometimes it’s not actually anything wrong with the story, but it’s just not a good fit for the market. If you’re a writer, you’ll keep revising and submitting. And writing.

* Accept that sometimes your published work will receive bad reviews. Everyone is different and likes different things. Sometimes that means other people won’t like your baby. If you’re a writer, you’ll keep writing.

* Understand that you are your own best publicist … but you can also be your own greatest downfall. Twelfth Planet Press’s Alisa Krasnostein said it better than I could on a post about the perils and positives of social networking and an online presence here. If you’re a writer, you need to keep in mind you have an audience, and continue writing.

A writer is someone who writes, not necessarily for publication. If you find these notes useful, I’m glad. If you disagree with everything I’ve said, I’m okay with that too! Every single writer is different and has different journeys. Some writers are published on their first attempt, others never are (and might not want to be). Each person’s writing process is unique to them, and what works for some may not for others, so these notes may be useful for some, but won’t be for all. I had a great time at the NaNo Cafe, and want to thank Lee Battersby for organising them and thinking of me as one of his speakers.