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  Festival of Faith & Writing, Part 2

A continuation of Judy Alexander's notes from the Festival of Faith & Writing, April 18-20, 2002.
To see page one, click here

Donald Maass, literary agent, president of AAR
April 19, 2002

Writing fulltime CAN be done. Out of 100 writers, 30% make a living from writing fiction fulltime.

5,700 novels published each year. Lots of that is first fiction. There are great support programs for writers. It is EASIER to be published today than ever before. But very hard the KEEP getting published.

What goes wrong in fiction careers

Hasty decisions at the outset of the career. At first, it's a delight to immerse yourself in your fiction. Your family is supportive or cautious. You have anxiety about publishing. You begin to submit. Then you get frustrated because you're not getting published. Then you start making bad decisions:

  • Sign with a fee-charging agent
  • Hire a book doctor
  • Publish with a vanity press

These early choices can have very long-term consequences.

Trends in New York publishing

  • The five major publishers in the U.S.are very corporate and bottom-line oriented
  • Independents book stores are falling to chain stores like Price Club
  • Computerized inventory shows how well your book sells through; numbers become your fate

Unrealistic Writer Expectations

  • I'm published, therefore I can write anything I want to. (The truth: you need to deliver a product.)
  • I can quit my day job. (The truth: an advance is a prediction of your sales.)
  • Publishing will solve my personal problems. (The truth: NO.)
  • Fame will solve my problems. (The truth: NO.)

You wrote your first book in 3 to 6 years. But the next book needs to come out at a faster pace (1 year for mysteries.)

Good News: You CAN have a good career

The reasons people buy fiction

  • Already familiar with the author
  • Recommended by a friend
  • Good first page
  • Good review

How NEW authors get an audience

Most fiction buyers are fans of a particular author and keep buying from that author. After that, word of mouth/personal recommendations account for the most sales. This is how NEW authors get an audience.

So, you need to cultivate fans and build that base over time. Your career is NOT about publishers, it's NOT about agents.

The right things to do

  • You can get help from teachers, conferences, mentors, writing groups
  • Because two-thirds of your promotions effort is your previous novel, write really well

10 years = the normal break-in period.

Bad fiction

I receive 250 queries every week and I reject almost ALL of it. 99% is NOT ready of publication because:

  • it has an unsympathetic main character. Need a compelling character who creates a bond with the reader. There is strength in the character. The characters must be memorable and surprising.
  • fails to reveal conflict on the first page. Do NOT set up the story first; backstory needs to come later, after we already care about the character. A story is a character facing a problem. Need tension. Need lots of little tensions along the way leading up to the big tension. Use a strong, internal conflict, so that reader is forced to try to resolve the conflict for the characters.

Successful career

  • Respect your readers
  • Publish regularly, in your "voice"
  • Make considered choices in your publishing
  • Ask for help
  • Tell good stories

This is a cumulative game.

Donald Maass is the author of The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success
(Paperback) click here



Ernest Gaines, novelist

When asked if I know the plot before I write, I tell people that writing is like a train trip from San Francisco to New York. I know the departure point and the destination. But I don't know the weather beforehand, and sometimes I end up in Philadelphia.

Writing is a discovery for the writer.

I try to create characters with character, and thereby I might create character in myself, the writer.

Kathleen Norris, poet & essayist

Poetry was the means of my conversion. Poetry led me back to God. God had been reaching me all along with poetry.

Poetry is like a farmer putting seeds in the ground: he doesn't see the harvest right away.

We can use the Bible in my poems, like Emily Dickenson did.

Read poetry by Louise Gluck, Kate Daniels, Jane Flanders, Maxine Kumin, and Anne Porter.

Oscar Hijuelos

I am cynical, but my characters have faith. Faith can give you a sense of who you are. I have an affection for religious characters. In Europe the idea of God is considered archaic and naïve but I believe that religion is still relevant, despite its primness.

posted July 7, 2002
Judy Alexander, webmaster