7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Chuck Greaves

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from mystery writer Chuck Greaves. 1. Nobody Knows Anything. It’s an article of faith in Hollywood that nobody knows anything. Which is to say that even the sharpest producers, the most talented directors, and the biggest A-list stars will invariably attach themselves, at some point in their careers, to a real stink-bomb. Or will, conversely, pass on what proves to be a nine-figure box office smash. What I didn’t realize was that the same holds true for publishing.
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Chuck Greaves, author of HUSH MONEY: A MYSTERY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

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Chuck Greaves spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before turning
his talents to fiction. HUSH MONEY, his debut novel (May 2012, Minotaur),
received starred reviewed from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. The
story also won the grand-prize Storyteller Award in the Southwest Writers
international writing contest, and is the first installment in a series of legal
mysteries from St. Martin’s Minotaur. Visit www.chuckgreaves.com for more.

1. Nobody Knows Anything. It’s an article of faith in Hollywood that nobody knows anything. Which is to say that even the sharpest producers, the most talented directors, and the biggest A-list stars will invariably attach themselves, at some point in their careers, to a real stink-bomb. Or will, conversely, pass on what proves to be a nine-figure box office smash. What I didn’t realize was that the same holds true for publishing.

Case in point. Before Harper Lee sold To Kill a Mockingbird – arguably the greatest novel in American letters – to Lippencott, she first received over a dozen publisher rejections. To Kill a Mockingbird! From this we know that agents, editors, and publishers are not infallible arbiters of literary quality. Like most authors I know, I received a slew of agent rejections before finding a home for my first novel, Hush Money, which would then go on to win an international writing contest, a multi-book publishing contract, and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

2. Publishing is Slow. How slow? I finalized a deal memo with my publisher in April of 2011. I received the formal contract from the publisher’s lawyers in April of 2012. There were extenuating circumstances, but still ... if you want to work in an industry where things get done yesterday, choose Wall Street, or Silicon Valley. Because: Publishing. Is. Slow.

3. Write Now, Edit Later. I’m something of a perfectionist, which means that I have great difficulty starting on Chapter 2 when Chapter 1 isn’t quite – what’s the word? – perfect. As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time when writing Hush Money polishing and re-polishing prose that, in the final edit, wound up on the cutting room floor. The lesson here is that, when it comes to your first draft, okay is good enough. Use your subsequent drafts to achieve perfection. The editing will hurt less, and the writing will go a heck of a lot faster.

(How to collaborate with a freelance editor.)

4. There Is No Right Way. I’ve talked craft with dozens of fellow writers. Some are meticulous outliners, while others just wing it. Some write behind soundproof doors, and others at Starbucks. Some write longhand, others on computer. Some belong to critique groups, while others prefer to fly solo. There’s no “right way” to do it. The key lies in finding what works for you, and sticking with it.

5. Tune out the Negative. Whether it’s your parents who wanted their son (or daughter) to be a doctor, or whether it’s your well-meaning friends who can’t for the life of them imagine why you’re passing up a round of golf to stay home and work on a fifth re-write of that novel you can’t seem to sell, or (most pernicious of all) whether it’s that little voice in your own head whispering that – who are you kidding? – you’ll never make it as a novelist, DO NOT LISTEN. Why? Because you love it. Because it’s what you want to do. And because, well, see No. 1.

(How to help an author promote their new book: 11 tips.)

6. Keep Ass in Chair. An 80,000-word novel, written in Times New Roman font, double-spaced, will fill approximately 370 manuscript pages. If you’re a Lawrence Block, that might take you four months to write. If you’re me, it will require at least a year, or approximately one day for each finished page. But I have the luxury of writing full-time. If you’re employed, or raising children, and only writing on the side, it may take you two years, or three, to finish that novel. Do your own math. Just remember that every day you’re not writing, you’re moving the finish line.

7. Congratulations, You’re Now a Salesman. Or woman. Because in modern-day publishing, except in extraordinary circumstances, first-time authors are pretty much on their own when it comes to marketing. That’s going to mean building a website, and joining Facebook, and writing blog posts, and courting media, and generally making a pest of yourself while trying to maintain your dignity and still find time to write every day. For me, writing my first two novels (Hard Twisted – a historical novel based on a true crime – will be published by Bloomsbury in November) was a full-time job. Writing the third while simultaneously marketing Hush Money has been like working overtime, all the time.

But I’m not complaining, considering the alternative.

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