For those of you who don’t know him, Chuck Sambuchino is an author and industry expert from the fine city of Cincinnati, Ohio and he came to speak to us at our conference in Lexington this weekend. I mentioned that his personality kind of rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found him to be probably the most helpful and insightful speaker at our conference. Since I’m about to take credit here for his ideas, I’d like to plug him real quickly and tell you to go buy his book How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, which is probably a hilarious read and has been optioned for motion picture production with Robert Zemeckis at the helm. Robert Zemeckis, of course, is that famous director who hasn’t made a memorable movie since “Forrest Gump” (okay, “Cast Away” was pretty good).
Here was his best advice from the conference:
1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Most first books do not sell. You shouldn’t write an entire trilogy before you’ve sold the first book, because it may all be a waste of time. One advice excerpt I read even said to take your first manuscript and just stick in a drawer somewhere. Move onto your next project because that book will never be published. The upside is that now you’re ready to write a better second book. Or an even better third. The point is to keep writing and improve with the process and not become bitter when that first book doesn’t skyrocket you to success.
2. Always come up with new ideas. This kind of a follow-up to #1. Even when you’re writing a book, be on the lookout for other ideas—even BETTER ideas. Write them down religiously. Some ideas are like slow-moving fireflies and others are like houseflies. You have to snatch them while you can or they might be gone forever. I keep a Word document of all my flowering ideas and as those ideas blossom, I transfer them over to their own Word documents where I can keep watering them and turning over new soil. That’s why I currently have five projects in development.
3. Steal other ideas! Okay, this isn’t really stealing but it is okay to steal bits of information, leads, thoughts, sparks of creativity, etc. and make them your own. What I do sometimes is take a book and look at the cover and try to imagine the story I would tell based on what little I know about the book. Usually my ideas are vastly different than what the book really is about and might go in a completely different and even better direction (in my opinion). That’s how my fantasy series that I’m working on came to be, and now I cannot WAIT to start writing those books. Your idea could also be a follow-up idea to someone else’s story or something that happened in the news. For instance, you might write a book on where the little girl from the mid-to-late 90s Pepsi commercials is now. Is she hot now? Is she single? People might need to know these things!
4. Steal from yourself! Milk all your good ideas. If you have a REALLY solid idea, maybe you can tweak it enough to use it in two books without the audience really picking up on it. Maybe you can even use it twice in the SAME book. How beautiful is that? I’m in the process of stealing from myself right now, as luck would have it. I came up with an awesome scene for a vampire novel but nothing to really tie a novel together. What did I do? I moved the vampire character to my fantasy series, which already had several cool ideas, and kept the scene. Now the fantasy series is going to be EVEN COOLER! My lesson: When possible, always try to maximize your book’s AWESOMICITY. I know “awesomeness” is already a word, but I like “awesomicity” or “wowability” or “mindblowntabulousness”.
5. Don’t believe everything you read. Sambuchino made the point of explaining that there is a wealth of great information on the Internet about query letter writing, publishing, editing, etc. There is also a wealth of bad information (maybe he’s been to http://www.seanmchandler.com before…) . The Internet and “How to” books are also riddled with egregious contradictions and I got to see this at play during the conference. Query letters are a study in contradiction and sabotage. One agent told me under no circumstances should a query letter have a bio and the next agent told me a query letter absolutely needs to have one. Both were INSISTENT on their opinions. Another agent said “Never give away the ending in your query” and another said “Your query must give us a sense of the resolution.” Does this seem like shades of gray to anyone else? You might be thinking, well obviously they can’t both be right. The sad truth is that, well…They’re kind of both right AND wrong. It falls on you to research any given agent’s preferences. Agent blogs are a great source for these little nuances. But, ultimately, it may be a total crapshoot that you have your query letter fashioned precisely to a given agent’s idiosyncrasies and preferences. That’s why we send out 30 or 40 letters!
6. When agents don’t respond, keep moving. You can’t control what happens once a letter is in an agent’s hand. An agent could spill hot coffee in his or her lap the moment he or she picks up your letter and decide to use your query letter as a napkin (if you sent a hard copy) instead of actually reading it. An agent might sit down to read your letter about breakups the morning after he’s just had his heart broken by his mail-order Russian bride. You don’t know, and you’ll never know! You can’t control an agent’s disposition, so you just have to move on. Consider how you can improve your book if you don’t get a response. Consider how your book might have a stronger first chapter or hook. Plan your next approach. Every time you send out queries it should be like planning attacks on an old map of Europe during World War II. Look at the pieces and plan your strategy. Can you write a better query letter? How are you going to take down those agencies and force your way in? And don’t be afraid of just moving onto the next project. Maybe that’s the one that will sell!
7. MAKE MORE TIME for your writing. Put away the remote. Stop sleeping in. If you’re a professional writer, that’s one thing, but if you’re a part-time something else and a part-time writer, like myself, you have to literally find a way to make more hours in the day. Short of defying the laws of physics or building a pimped out DeLorean, you have to hone your schedule and your routine. 10 hours of sleep might sound tempting but we only need 8 and I can function on about 6 or 7. That’s 3-4 more hours of writing! “Mad Men” might be excellent, but do you really need to pair it with “Game of Thrones”, “The Killing”, “The Closer”, “The Mentalist”, “The Real Housewives of Zimbabwe”, “Teen Mom”, “Teen Wolf”, “Teen Wolf Mom”, “Teen Mom Wolf”, “Wolf Mom Teen”, and “American Ninja Warrior”? No! Pick a couple and devote the other lost hours to your hobby. It’s easy to make time for the job that pays the best—tutoring, for me—because it’s not optional. If you want to succeed at writing, you can’t let that be optional either. Don’t give up.
Special thanks to Chuck Sambuchino for his advice and, once again, support the guy by visiting his site: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents and picking up his book How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.