Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12 WOW Wednesday: L.B. Schulman on Writing for the Long Haul

Today's WOW guest is L.B. Schulman, who writes middle-grade and young adult books. LEAGUE OF STRAYS is her debut YA novel, published by Abrams/Amulet. She lives in California with her husband, two daughters, and a pair of magnificent mutts. Please visit her on her website, lbschulman.com, or on Twitter at @lbschulman.

In it For the Long Haul

by L.B. Schulman


I owe any and all success I’ve had with writing to one main thing: relentless persistence. I was not the author you hear about who sold her first novel in a four book series, six-figure deal. (Who are those people, anyway?) In fact, the first word I ever wrote in the YA genre belongs to my first manuscript, which became my first published novel, LEAGUE OF STRAYS. But by the time it found a publishing home, I’d since written three other complete manuscripts and was working on my fourth. I’d signed and left two agents and had been rejected by 30 publishers total. It was a long road, but hey, I was up for a marathon. I told myself that if I failed, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

It’s common for an author to write many manuscripts before getting published, but in my case, I feel I speeded up the process by never abandoning my first.

In the beginning, it was filled with immature writing, bad dialogue, flat characters, and epic scenes that didn’t connect in anything close to what is commonly referred to as “plot.” To be honest, part of my drive was that I couldn’t bear to think I’d wasted years of my life on a project that would go nowhere, and part of it was that I knew in my heart that this book had potential.

Contrary to what we hear from the media, most authors are not overnight successes. Most of us need to work at craft for a very long time. I’ve met many authors who work on a project for a while, then lose interest and start something new. Or perhaps they actually make it to The End, only to find themselves so sick of working on said project that they put it aside indefinitely and turn to something new. They aren’t learning to fix their mistakes; they’re learning to make new ones.

To me, writing has a lot in common with marriage. After the intensity of a relationship wears off, it can be challenging to maintain interest. It begins to take work. Yes, there are payoffs to a committed marriage, but judging from the divorce rate, it’s tough to be in it for the long haul. Same goes with your relationship with writing. Just because you’ve reached The End doesn’t mean you can push it to the side. If you want to make a career for yourself, then you should accept that you’ve only just begun to work. Revision, for most of us, is absolutely essential to getting published. The bad news is, I’m not talking one revision, or even three. I mean so many that you lose track.

Here is how my revision process worked on League: after I got four rejections from agents, I reviewed notes, decided on the validity of their comments, then revised and repeated the process. This went on for a long time until I landed an agent, and then I revised again for her. When it went out to publishers, the same process happened. Eventually, I had to change agents one more time before I found the best one ever, Ammi-Joan Paquette. For each of those agents and each of those publishers, I revised again and again and again...and, well, you get the idea.

There may come a point where my agent wants to put a specific manuscript to the side, or we exhaust editors for a certain project, but it won’t die because I don’t feel like working on it anymore. Complete what you start and don’t let fear of success, fear of failure, boredom, or whatever may be your excuse, get in the way of polishing something until it shines. If you can honestly look at your project and say, “I’ve done all I can possibly do, to the best of my abilities,” then fine, walk away. But most of us know that we can do better, revision after revision. The question is, are we willing to make such a stupendous effort?

The difference between most published and unpublished writers is not inherent talent. It’s not great ideas. It’s not networking abilities. It’s elbow grease, plain and simple.

Oh, and by the way, why I was writing, I was also reading every YA I could. I listened for voice. I wrote down phrases and turn of words that I liked. I analyzed plot. I thought about what worked or didn’t work in a novel. And all that analysis seemed to magically work its way into my writing. Work, Read, Work, Read, Work, Read = Success!

The gleaming new idea is always around the corner to entice us away from what we may perceive to be an old, lackluster, project. But ask yourself this: do you want a series of one-night stands or real love that last a lifetime?

12 comments:

  1. Great post. And I can so relate because I've been working on a manuscript for about 10 years that I think might finally be ready to query. Glad to know that I'm not the only one who didn't give up on a project they believed in. Good luck with your book.

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    1. YAY Natalie!!!! Sending an email in a second. SOOOO proud of you!

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  2. Thanks, Natalie. Good luck with yours, too. It sounds like you have exactly what I wish for everyone, a quality that will pay off one day...and hopefully, soon!

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  3. This was a great word of encouragement for me. I'm chewing through the umpteenth draft of a novel, and I've sworn that I have to query it no later than April. So I'm rushing to make it as good as possible.

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    1. HI Kessie,

      Don't rush! God, I've made that mistake. Trust me! Make sure you are happy with it, make it the best book you can make it, not the best book you can make it by April! Deadlines are good practice and they're great motivators, but make sure you take advantage of the fact that this is your first novel to enjoy the process without making yourself crazy! The fact that you are on the umpteenth draft already puts you ahead of the game!!!

      Best,

      Martina

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  4. Great post. A shot in the writing arm!

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    1. Glad it resonated, Carol. I thought of LIsa's point about the series of one-night stands when you wrote about chucking things out. ;) No chucking!

      Best,

      Martina

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  5. Congratulations! Love this post & love this line: "They aren’t learning to fix their mistakes; they’re learning to make new ones." And I'm framing it. I figure, if I haven't given up on my special needs son, I've gained the persistence I need, to not give up on a heart love story, started in '07
    I'm a runner, too, but better with long distance running.
    Inspiring drive, you have! Thanks, LB.

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    1. And I am going to make a note of what you said in this comment, Karen -- you are absolutely inspiring yourself!

      Hugs,

      Martina

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    2. Thanks, Karen. I am glad you will be posting that line! It's a good reminder to look at all our mistakes. Seems to me that in this world of so much competition, if you aren't constantly improving, you just won't get there. I am always telling my kids that if they don't look at their bad test grades, then they can't figure out how to improve the next time. Of course, they don't pay any attention to me, but I digress.

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  6. I'm right in the middle of where you were--looking at the agent notes and revising and editing as needed. I know what I need to work on in my story, it's just a matter of getting it there. I love it, and I'm not giving up, but it's a tough spot when you feel so close but you're not quite there. I'm so glad I stumbled on this post today. I'm going to follow you on twitter now :)

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    1. I was talking to my critique group about this place you are in. So close, but no rewards yet. It is rough and takes a LOT of faith. I think that when you start getting nice notes from agents that means you are getting very close.

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