By Al Lamanda
Along with everyone else in the Great Northeast, I’ve had it with this winter. Not so much the cold, but the relentless snowstorms. One after another so that by mid-January, my picnic table had vanished under six feet of snow. There are mounds of snow piled so high in my backyard, I could hollow them out and use them as a garage.
After the most recent storm, I was breaking three-foot-long ice cycles off my roof when I realized that I had reached my limit. It was time for some sunshine on a warm beach.
Next stop, Puerto Rico. Eight degrees and snowing at the airport when I left, eighty-two and sunny upon arrival. I sat on the beach and drank coconut mike straight from the coconut. I snorkeled, climbed the mountains in El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest, walked the blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, explored the four hundred-year-old El Morro fort, went zip lining above the trees in the rain forest, and ate a great deal of wonderful Puerto Rican food. And all with sunshine and tropical breezes on my face.
Somewhere between beach time and Old San Juan, I met a young writer while I was enjoying a genuine cup of Puerto Rican coffee at a local shop. She was in her early twenties and wrote poetry. She showed me some poems she had written and they were quite good. We started talking books, writers, and what it takes to be successful in the business of selling prose.
I’m no expert by any means, but I do know the basics and I shared them with her.
First and foremost and above all others, Be Original. Nobody likes a copycat, not agents, publishers or readers. Find your own voice. It’s in there and if you write enough, it will make itself known. The worst thing a writer can do is mimic the style and voice of another writer with the hope of fooling an agent or reader. Trust me, you won’t.
Write. Simple enough, except that it isn’t. Most people I’ve met who want to be writers find out soon enough that it’s hard work that requires many house spent alone as you agonize over a chapter that you just can’t seem to finish. Most I’ve met can’t do it, quickly give up and vow to return to their unfinished manuscript in ten or twelve years. When they’re more seasoned. Except that they only way to be more seasoned at writing is to constantly write.
Learn grammar, spelling and punctuation. Learn the difference between its and it’s, your and you’re and their and they’re, because if the agent you queried spends more time correcting your grammar than reading your story, it will wind up in the trash can.
Get feedback. Show your work to family and friends and ask what they think. They will tell you. If you are hesitant to show your work to your spouse, family and friends, how will you able to show with confidence to an agent. Feedback from family and friends is a valuable support system.
Learn to accept criticism. You are going to get a lot of it. However, not all criticism is necessarily a bad thing. We, as writers can learn a great deal from constructive criticism if we keep an open mind. Criticism has exposed weakness in my plot, character flaws and many other things that helped to make me a better writer. So don’t take criticism with a grain of salt, learn from it.
Grow the skin of a Rhino, because you’re going to need it. Writing is not for the thin-skinned. If you can’t take rejection and a lot of it, writing is not for you. Many, and by many I mean most agents will pass on you the first go around. You need to have a very thick skin to handle this kind of rejection until somebody finally says yes. What you never do is strike out at an agent or publisher for rejecting you. They are doing their job the same as you, and they may very well say yes the next time you query you, unless you have written them a very nasty email, which they will remember.
Know your audience. For goodness sake, why would you query an agent interested in romance about the mystery you’ve written? Know your genre and query those interested in it. The same goes for marketing. Market yourself on sites like Facebook and Twitter to readers of your genre. Forget trying to amass large numbers of people that aren’t interested in your work just for the sake of having followers.
The young poet was grateful for out time and conversation and as all good things must come to an end, so did our coffee and my vacation.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have some snow to shovel.
Al Lamanda is the author of many mystery novels, including the Edgar Award nominated John Bekker series.