Monday, November 28, 2011

Be Bold!

I read a blog post in which the writer, an agent, was giving some advice on how to sell a book. Not how to write it, but how to give yourself an edge once you've written (and rewritten and rewritten) and are trying to sell it. Because, like Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (I'll bet if we knew the context of that quote it wouldn't be nearly so cynical as it sounds.)

Much of the material in the blog is stuff you've heard before, probably many times. Have an online presence, use Twitter, read widely, attend conventions. All good advice (except the Twitter thing. I can't imagine ever doing Twitter. That's the line I don't see me crossing.)

The most important point, and the one most applicable not just to writing but to life, is the last one.

"Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to fail. Neither will kill you."

Absolutely true. You try. Maybe you fail, maybe you succeed. But you can't possibly succeed if you don't try, and what's the worst thing they can do if you fail?

If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else? And I don't mean you have to believe you're the greatest writer of all time. I mean believe in your ability to master the skills to becoming a writer – first an adequate one, then a good one. And after that? Who knows, maybe there really is a great writer inside you.

I am reminded of someone I know who wants to write, but is paralyzed by the idea that he might be rejected. It didn't help when I tried saying, in a happy, jocular tone, "Of course you'll be rejected! Everybody gets rejected at first! That's how you learn!"

Rejection of authors who eventually become iconic figures in American letters are legendary, almost cliche. Ray Bradbury, James Thurber, Erle Stanley Gardner (who got one of the best rejection letters ever for what turned out to be the first Perry Mason mystery) and Stephen King all went through it. "The Hunt for Red October" was rejected by more than two dozen publishers before it became a best seller. Most writers say quite candidly that being rejected helped them improve to the point they eventually got good enough to get published. It's part of learning the craft.

By that standard, I should be the smartest writer ever!

But I haven't given up, in fact I know I'm a better writer because of it. You dig in. You read more. You read your own stuff more self-critically, more honestly, looking for ways to improve.

And it paid off three months ago when I finally landed an agent. (Or did the agent land me? Hmmm. Interesting question.) Now he's preparing a set of revision notes – things he think the book needs before it'll be good enough for him to show publishers. Note: I didn't say "good enough to publish." Maybe it will be, I certainly hope so. But the next step is "good enough to show publishers."

Someone a lot smarter than me – my dad – used to say nothing beats hard work. His favorite quotation was something Thomas Jefferson said – "I am a great believer in luck, and find that the harder I work the more of it I have."

• Speaking of not being afraid, everyone who has seen the great, great movie "Almost Famous" knows that Goethe once said "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid."

The problem is, that's not the actual quote, and Goethe didn't say it.

The closest thing you'll find in literature is "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid." That's pretty close and if Goethe had said it we could just chalk it up to wonky translation. But he didn't.

That was a comment from Basil King.

Who? You know, Basil King! A 19th-20th century Canadian cleric who became a writer.

Another one to file under "Everything you know is wrong."

But "Almost Famous" is still a terrific movie, probably my favorite or at least top three of the last 15 years. The "Tiny Dancer" scene? I swear, I was on that bus back in the day.

Great movie. But the line they gave Frances McDormand, while perfect for the character, just isn't right.

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