(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here on my blog.)
Taking a Break
Don’t be afraid to take a break after that first sentence, that first page, or that first session of writing. Refreshing breaks are a crucial part of writing strategy and I cannot commend them highly enough. Go fold your laundry or take a walk or play with your pets. Make some tea. Go check again to make sure your car hasn’t been stolen. I like to lay down on my bed (which is conveniently located two feet behind my desk chair, one of the many benefits of the mighty home office) and heap pillows and blankets over my head and sort of float above my body until I feel inspired to write some more.
Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t want your brain to overheat and catch on fire, do you?
No. The smell of burnt cerebrum is awful, trust me.
Genre & the Elevator Pitch
Before we venture deeper into more sexy craft talk I suppose it’s as good a time as any to talk about genre and where you’re ultimately aiming this novel of yours. The concept of genre, or basically categorizing a work of art, harkens back to the ancient Greeks and they’re love of pigeonholing everything because they thought that would be the best and easiest way for the audience to understand what they were encountering (they were the original TV network executives). The Greeks wanted their poetry, prose, and theater strictly separated, with their own genre elements and genre signifiers, but it didn’t take long for the rambunctious concept of genre to mutate and pretty soon tragicomedy emerged and then it was only a hop, skip and a plunge to the epic-literary-pulp-horror-dark comedy-spaltterpunk-zombie-comedy of manners novels we all know today.
I myself enjoy genre blending. Growing up I read everything at hand with no sense of propriety or even a fully formed awareness of what genre was (though I knew some stuff was set in outer space and other stuff wasn’t and I liked most of the stuff in space better) and I’ve carried a blatant disregard for genre boundaries with me from an early age. Over the course of fifteen novels I’ve written in literary-post apocalyptic-horror, dark YA fantasy, modern literary YA fantasy, horror-Western, straight up literary, suburban comedy, epic quest sci-fi, dark urban horror comedy, YA horror with a Laura Ingalls Wilder influence, literary-science fiction, dark quest surrealism, and probably a few more genres I can’t recall off the top of my head. I view genre like a snake regards its skin—I wear it for as long as it suits me and then I slough it off and move on to hunt somewhere else.
A propensity toward genre blending does have its drawbacks, however, especially in the marketplace. If you’re writing with an eye toward future publication sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out where your work is going to fit into the tightly pegged marketplace. A lot of beginning writers seem to fall into two categories when it comes to pitching their own work: either they’ve studied the current literary market in advance and know exactly what kind of book they want to sell, and therefore write, or they don’t know much about the marketplace (either through lack of study or simple indifference) and they simply write whatever the hell they want, labels and selling points be damned.
Both of these angles have their good points and their drawbacks. I can’t help but commend the market savvy writer for her knowledge and practicality while wondering if something intangible in the creative process is sacrificed in service of the almighty dollar, a little of the magical fairy dust that makes a work of fiction truly glow. On the flip side, a writer could toil for years only to come up with a novel with limited or no potential audience (at least in the eyes of an editor) and end up of having to eventually shelve that work with no income to show for it—thus is the ever-present risk inherent in doing whatever the hell you want with no eye toward a prospective audience.
Of course, the market savvy writer won’t necessarily write a book of publishing quality (indeed, I’ve noticed a lot of the savviest ones seem to come up with the least creative works) and the free spirit type writer could come up with a work so strange and wondrous it transcends the marketplace and rises to the top. Yet, all things considered, I suppose I’d wager on the writer writing with an eye toward the marketplace getting published over the free spirit writer, especially in the modern era, which is an admission that saddens the creative rebel inside of me yet now, in retrospect, seems painfully obvious.
You see, I once did not care about my prospective audience and did not write with an eye toward selling my work when it was completed. I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. I wrote it to amuse myself and to pass the time. I lived in a small town and I was bored. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet. I sat down one day at our trusty black and white Apple II and started writing a short story. Before I knew it, the story had unspooled until it was thirty, then forty pages long, with no end in sight. More ideas came to me, more adventures for my character to have, more worlds for him to visit, and suddenly I was embedded in a sprawling novel that would come in at over four hundred pages long and, when printed out single page style and bound at Kinko’s, was heavy enough to subdue an angry llama.
My mom read my first novel, praised me, and then I put it on the shelf. The idea of selling it to a publisher didn’t really occur to me. I knew I was just starting out and the book was probably total crap, though I liked it. I just let my squirrelly teen brain percolate and life go by and got to work on the second book. It wasn’t until I’d graduated college and enrolled in an MFA program that I pursued publication in earnest by submitting a slew of query letters to agents. At the time I was working on my fourth novel and I thought my work was finally polished enough to crack into the industry. I did find a literary agent to represent it but the book never sold.
But the next one, The Suicide Collectors, sold.
That was nine novels ago.
The idea of the elevator pitch, a phrase commonly attributed to Ilene Rosenzweig and Michael Caruso, is simple: you find yourself riding in an elevator with an important industry someone and you have a brief period of time, say thirty second to two minutes, to pitch the project your working on.
What do you say?
How do you sum up this hot mess of a book you’re working on?
Why would someone want to invest in it?
Why would someone see it on a shelf and decide to buy it over all the other options spread out so enticingly before them?
What’s your angle?
I wrote The Suicide Collectors as the result of a thought experiment. I was a big fan of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction and wanted to come up with a new twist on what had become well-trodden ground. I chewed on the problem for a few weeks, going on long autumnal walks around the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, until eventually the simple idea occurred to me: what if everyone suddenly gave up living? What if this apocalypse was more of an internal thing than an external thing?
Holy schnikes, maybe I was on to something here. Maybe I had my angle.
The elevator hums merrily along. The important industry someone I’m lucky enough to be alone with asks what I’m working on. I smile. I know I’ve been writing a long time and finally have something polished enough for publication. This is the moment. I am prepared.
“A post-apocalyptic novel about a suicide plague and a few survivors who go on a quest to find a cure for it.”
The industry someone’s eyebrows give a brief approachable waggle.
 Chaos theory, anyone? I’m looking at you, Dr. Ian Malcom.
 I’ll talk about agents later, about which I receive by far the most questions, with my own work coming in a distant, distant second.