I’m concerned there hasn’t been a single manual written in the past seven days on how to write a book—and how not to. This makes me speculate that everyone has already learned how. At least everyone in my acquaintance is writing one, including people who should know better–they have families to support.
Our mail carrier, for example, is writing a novel about how she took her grandchildren on vacation to the Ozarks and overturned her canoe. While they were drying out by the campfire, they were visited by a grizzly bear, who took all their food. So they survived for a week on peanut butter, soggy Ritz crackers and river water purified with Army surplus halogen tablets. The author describes their experience in vivid terms: “We had the time of our lives!”
In view of such widespread talent, however, I wonder: Why aren’t there more successful authors? For one thing, there are dozens of books about character development, dialogue that moves the plot along and the importance of double spacing your manuscript. But where is a new author supposed to learn the real basics–the essentials, after all–like how to have lunch with an editor or an agent?
This is a touchy subject for us Midwesterners, unfortunate enough to live in flyover country. How can you meet those chosen ones, those kingmakers from the Left Coast—and especially the “right” one—without blowing (in advance, mind you) your first advance? Fortunately for those of us as yet uninitiated and unblessed, there is the regional literary conference, where the Great Ones descend to the hinterland to seek, among the unwashed masses, that spark of raw talent, that rude woodsman with native genius, who ends his day of chopping and gathering wood in the primeval forest scribbling deathless prose by lantern light.
One seasoned and pickled literary agent once confided to me, “Let’s face it: the place to make a book deal is in the goddamned bar.” At a tiny cocktail table in the lounge of the conference hotel, six or seven of us crowded around her, hanging on every word, each vying to be the next to pick up the check for her whiskey—she drank it neat. To keep the conversation on a general level, I brought up recent bestsellers. “What about Fifty Shades of Grey?” Bingo. “That E. L. James can’t sustain her pandering,” she expounded. “She’s got only one book in her, period.” “I couldn’t agree more,” I said, “most so-called romance fiction is just mommy porn.” I took a chance that this esteemed arbiter of literary taste, who had too many miles on her to care about romance anyway, favored sterner stuff. “Now what I really think is coming back,” she added, “is hard-boiled mystery.” Bingo, again. But she was too well oiled to remember much a month later, when I submitted my noir detective novel, about our productive conversation.
You’ll have your own chance to drink in this advice and much more, April 26 through the 28th at the Missouri Writers Guild conference, Sheraton Westport Hotel, St. Louis. You can learn more at their website. I’ll be there with plenty of loose change—at the bar.