Monday, February 27, 2012

Secretary Wanted

In elementary school I started using whatever I could to act out elaborate story lines: Star Wars figures, six penny nails, my sister’s vast array of stuffed animals or the family pets that weren’t too happy with the deal, by the way.. I’d lock myself in my room and have grand adventures of murder and fantasy. It wasn’t until my ninth grade year that I started putting these ideas to paper and describing with prose what I had been acting out with toys. I became lost in the writing.

Thirty years later I’m still lost in the words: stories, essays, poetry; whatever idea popped into my head was scribbled into a notebook and given life. I could sit and write all day long wherever I was, which was why everything went into notebooks. It’s hard to balance a laptop on a steering wheel, I know because I’ve tried, but the horn is a great place to hold a clipboard. I can carry a pad and pen anywhere I go: movie theater, children’s graduation or at a friend’s wedding. I was always working on something.

However, editors don’t really care to receive hard written manuscripts. I don’t blame them after having to decipher my own writing. Pot holes can wreak havoc on penmanship and mine is bad enough as it is. I had to stop writing in cursive because all the words just appeared as squiggly lines when I went back to reread it. Still, they had to be typed and my writing made that a challenging task. Add to that fact that my back screamed obscenities at me once I had been sitting in the desk chair for ten minutes and its obvious why a 1,000 word manuscript took a month to type. Luckily computers came along and stopped me from retyping every manuscript after a revision. Cut and paste are two of my favorite features.

This, however, wasn’t my only excuse – I mean, reason – for not sending my manuscripts out. No, in order for a piece of writing to find a home the author must first have a destination in mind. That requires market research, which isn’t nearly as much fun as researching an idea. Truth be told, I hate market research. I want to finish a story, print it out and then hear my phone ring. “Hello, Robbie. Our editorial psychics just got a telepathic wave that you completed another wondrous tale. We mailed your check last week. Please send us the manuscript.” And I’m on to the next adventure.

However, I think that only works for Stephen King or James Patterson. For me, it’s market research. People will tell you this is the business end of the, well, business, and they are correct. I don’t like business. It’s tedious and monotonous and I’d much rather be killing off a character or making fun of my childhood.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t pay the bills. Well, it does, but only if combined with the business end of writing, the market research. The word “research” alone sends me into terrible flashbacks of my school career, which wasn’t all that remarkable. There are great tools to aid you in your search, such as Writer’s Market, but it doesn’t stop you from doing the work. It merely points you in several directions. You have to find the right fit for what you’ve written; get a feel for who the publication is aimed at as well as their voice so you can match your voice to theirs. Writing to me doesn’t feel like work; research is work.

At first I tried the lazy way. I read through Writer’s Market, found a magazine listed under the general category I was writing about and mailed off my submission with the misguided notion that it would be well-received. I was lucky once or twice, but luck doesn’t feed the children. I’m sure the editors glanced at the cover page, if at all, and said, “This idiot didn’t take the time to get to know us.”

It’s similar to filling out a form on an online dating service. You list off that you don’t want smokers or anyone over fifty; that you are athletic and into extreme sports and prefer blondes. Yet, a sixty-five year old couch potato who smells like an ash tray and is completely bald keeps emailing you. You hit delete wondering why they wasted their time as well as yours by not reading your profile. Truth is they were doing what I was doing with my writing, skipping the specific details and hoping the general facts were enough. “I’m male; she’s female. This could work.”

It wasn’t until giving my children advice on how to get a job that I realized I needed to heed my own words. They had asked me to take them to a job interview and knowing that them earning their own income would mean they could pay for their own dates, I was quick to agree. However, when they came out I was shocked at how they were dressed, or rather not dressed.

“I thought you were going for an interview,” I said, staring at the shorts, baseball cap and Flip Flops.

“I am. You said you’d take me.”

“Not like that. That may be okay for school, but not to impress a potential boss. You need to dress to impress.”

And that’s what I needed to do with my manuscripts. I was sending my writing out in Flip Flops and baseball caps when I needed dress slacks and a tie. As you gear your resume to fit a possible job, I needed to write my piece to fit a particular market, and the only way to do that was research. It’s more than word count and a general topic; it’s a specific audience and the right editor with his or her name spelled correctly. It’s knowing what they’ve already published and where they are going in the future. Furthermore, it’s about knowing their style and their vision. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee a sale, but it does get you further than luck will. It may not be the most enjoyable part of the business, but I promise that it’s just as important as the writing. And until I find a secretary that will do it for me, it’s a part I have to stay equally committed to doing. Even then I’ll have to do my fair share to know how best to tailor my piece. I wonder if I could create a character to do it for me.

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