Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spiders and Scorpions and Applying What You’ve Learned

There’s nothing like starting the writing morning with a large spider under your computer.  It’s not a tarantula, but I’m sure, if it wanted to, it could do some damage to my toes.  One morning, while frantically marking exam papers at home, I kept hearing this clicking, scratching sound beneath my desk.  Finally, I had a look.  It was a scorpion.  This is an area where my children sometimes play with their toys.  I figured I had one crack at this.  I grabbed a board and I knew that if I didn’t kill it, it would find plenty of places to hide in my cluttered office and haunt me for the rest of my writing life, or until I moved.  I smashed the scorpion and one of my knuckles in the process.

In life you got to apply what you’ve learned.  Living in Borneo, I’ve learned to always check my shoes and moccasins before I put them on.  In writing, I’m applying what I learned from Joel Roberts, the media guru, from his three-day media event in Singapore.  The three big lessons for me were, don’t run away from your credentials, create impact with your words, and pay attention to the media.  The first two I began applying right away when writing to editors and agents or during interviews because I’m selling myself and my writing.  If I can’t say good things about me (without bragging), who will?

For the media, Roberts’ mantra was that you have to find ways to connect yourself, or the products you sell, to what’s happening in the news, and you have to react fast because yesterday’s story can get old in light of news-breaking events.  It’s all about timing.  So when the story broke about Representative Gabrielle Giffords being shot and a little girl was killed in Tucson, coupled with yet another school shooting in Omaha, it clicked.  The novel that I’ve been pitching to agents The Boy Who Shot Santa is about that very issue, so I added the following to my query letters:

Due to the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and recent school shootings in Omaha and LA (kids/teens with guns, and kids being shot—the 9-year old girl in Tucson), I feel that my novel, THE BOY WHO SHOT SANTA, is as timely as ever.  Rachel Layton is a voice of reason against guns. This gun issue in America is definitely coming to a head; politically, it's huge in more ways than one.  About time, too, before there's another assassination attempt…or another child/teen is involved as a shooter or as a victim.

Then I go into my pitch.  Is it working?  Too soon to tell.  Agents are inundated with query letters from writers and they often take weeks and months to get back to you, plus even more time once they’ve requested your work, but in order to stand out, having your book tied to a national or international story can’t hurt.  Suddenly you and your work have become relevant; they can visualize a target market for your book, too (anti-gun crusaders, concerned mothers about the safely of their children at school).  To make sure they don’t miss the tie in, I stick it in the subject line of the email:  Query: The Boy Who Shot Santa—tie in to tragic Arizona shooting.

So I’m applying what I’ve learned, and since that story broke, I’ve been rewriting my novel with a vengeance in anticipation for agents wanting to see more and also for the upcoming Amazon Breakthrough Writing Awards.  The Amazon contest, by the way, is a must for any would be novelist.  Why?  Because it forces you to fine tune your pitch down to 300 words, to concentrate on your opening chapters, the first 3000-5000 words, and also the entire novel.  All three have to be perfect.  If there’s no impact with your pitch (Joel Roberts again), you don’t advance to the next round (same with agents and editors); if your opening chapters are weak, they won’t even bother with the rest of the book, despite your great, earth-shattering ending (same with agents and editors); and if the whole book doesn’t hold together nicely, it shows that you’re all talk (pitch) but no action (novel).  Agents get that a lot at writing conferences where writers can really talk up their books, but haven’t gotten around to polishing or finishing or even starting it…

So, what have you learned and have begun to apply to make 2011 your breakout year as a writer?  Far too many writers, it seems, have given up hope; they’ve become jaded by the harsh realities of the last two years.  For me, I see hope, so long as I’m learning to write better and learning new ways to make my writing relevant.  Learning, by the way, is must if you ever expect to grow as a writer.  Because in life (think of plants), if you’re not growing, you’re dying. 

As for the spider, it got away.  I have a feeling it’ll be back when I least expect it….I’ll learn from that, too.
                                            —Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer


***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

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