Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.
It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.
Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.
And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.
Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.
Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie.
This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.