Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Tour Day One


Almost exactly two years ago I received a phone call from my good friend and fellow author, James Dashner. He was as excited as a little kid, about a meeting he’d just had with Chris Schoebinger and Lisa Mangum, of Shadow Mountain. They had agreed to publish his young adult fantasy series, The 13th Reality.

That night, I found myself wide awake in a hotel room with a crazy story that wouldn’t leave my head. If you’ve read any of the interviews from my blog tour, you are familiar with the story. What you might not be as familiar with is the incredible luck and timing that led me to where I am today. (Which at the moment is about 20,000 feet in the air, somewhere over southern Utah, getting ready to begin my two week book tour.)

People ask all the time what the trick to getting published is. Even though every writer knows deep inside that there is no magic silver bullet to getting published, there is a part of us that firmly believes the other guy (or gal) knows something we don’t know. It’s like when you’re fishing out on a lake, and the guy across the way is catching fish every ten minutes, while you’re not getting a nibble. You ask yourself what you are doing wrong. Does he have better bait? Does he know about a secret spot where fish always school? Is he letting his line go deeper? Shallower?

You can literally drive yourself crazy wondering what you are doing wrong. You keep switching baits. You change spots. You surreptitiously spy on him when he sets up his line. In other words, you do everything but the one thing that will catch you fish. And that is to fish.

I am by no means an expert at getting published. Yes I’ve done it a few times, but there are so many people who have been far more successful at it than me. Still, I have learned a few things. In metaphorical terms, I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time at the lake over the last eight years, and I’ve seen a lot of really good (and really bad) fishermen and fisherwomen come and go. I’ve had good days and bad days. But I usually come home with something to put in the pan.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Seventy percent of getting published is how well you write. The other thirty percent is pure dumb luck. I suppose that might frighten some of you who are trying desperately to get that first book on the shelves. And it might offend some of you who have been fortunate enough to do so yourselves. But you really shouldn’t be frightened or offended. Instead, you should use this information to your advantage.

Maybe I should be a little clearer. For the most part, books that have no redeeming value do not get picked up by traditional publishers. (I know, shocking news flash huh?) A novel (non-fiction is another beast entirely) typically has to have one or more of three things going for it. Well drawn characters, a timely or intriguing plot, and great writing. Some time over the next two weeks I’ll share my opinion on which of the three is most important, but for now let’s give them all equal weight.

What I am saying here is that seventy percent (and possibly quite a bit more) of the writers who do not get published have not polished their writing skills enough. Don’t let this discourage you. Because what it means is that if you can craft a good story, with relatively interesting characters and a decent plot, you are in the top thirty percent of everyone who submits their work. You don’t have to be the greatest writer in the world; you just have to be good enough. I’ll be the first to admit that my first published work, a high-tech thriller titled Cutting Edge, was not the height of great writing. So why did it get published if it wasn’t the best work?

Let’s go back to the fishing analogy. There are fishermen who can go to a lake or stream where no one is catching fish, and bag their limit. Why? Because they know the fish and the spot inside and out. They will never come home empty handed. These are the Stephen Kings, The Danielle Steeles, the Graishams and Koontzs. They are going to get published as long as they keep churning out words. And I don’t begrudge them a bit. They’ve earned the right.

But there are also people who drop in their line with little or no knowledge of what they are doing, and yet they catch fish as well. When I was about five, I used to go fishing in the Trinity River with my parents and grandparents. They had the best gear and the best lures. I, on the other hand, had a stick with a hook tied to it. I caught grasshoppers by swatting them with a pine bough, and stuck them on my hook.

As you would expect, the older folks usually caught more fish. But every so often I brought home the bigger catch. Why? Because an irrevocable law of nature is that if you stick a big grasshopper in front of a hungry trout, you will get a bite. When I submitted Cutting Edge to Covenant, I didn’t know that by dumb luck, they were looking for “guy books.” They’d been publishing lots of romance and a little mystery, and they wanted a book guys would like. In essence, I dropped my grasshopper in front of a hungry trout and they bit.

Now let me restate the obvious again. Even if my book wasn’t the best writing in the world, the story was solid. In fact, there are many people who still come up to me years later and tell me how much they liked the story. I didn’t have the strongest writing, but I did have a fun plot and a decent couple of main characters. It may not have been perfect bait, but it was bait. Even a hungry trout won’t bite at a stone. (A bluegill will bite at anything though. Not sure how that fits into the analogy.)

Now let’s jump to Farworld. How did it get published? A couple of things worked together. First, without tooting my own horn too much, my writing has improved a lot. I’ve gone to numerous conferences, talked to lots of authors, written hundreds of thousands of words, and worked hard to get better at my craft. If I hadn’t done that, none of the rest would have mattered. Next, I got to know other authors and publishing people. Remember, the whole reason I started writing that night was because of a conversation with James. And the first thing I did when I realized I had a story to tell was to contact Lisa Mangum, who I had met at writing conferences.

I also had put quite a bit of time into promoting my other books. Let me not downplay this last point. I talked to a publishing executive recently—in fact more than one—who took a chance on a book in big part because they knew the author was a relentless marketer.

Now comes the luck. Shadow Mountain was looking for another fantasy series. They had Leven Thumps, Fablehaven, and the aforementioned 13th Reality. I became the fourth series. Would I be on this plane right now if I had started my series six months later? Three months? I’d like to think I would have been published anyway, but it’s not a thought I like to dwell on late at night. I’m not saying Shadow Mountain isn’t still taking authors—they are—but what if they’d received another series as good or better than mine in the three months between?

So what can you take from all this? I think that in publishing and in life in general, the opportunities come to those who are lucky and are prepared to take advantage of that luck. In addition, you’ve got to be on the lookout constantly for those opportunities. They won’t walk up and hit you on the nose.

An excellent agent once told me that once your writing reaches a certain quality, you are publishable. Whether you get published or not, after that point, comes down to timing. Is the publisher/agent looking for what you have? Are they in a good mood when they read your work? Did someone else beat you to the punch by a week? Is your story just the angle they’ve been looking for? Or is it the same one that bombed six months ago? Is it enough to just write a great book? Maybe. Or maybe not. I might have the juiciest worm in the world, but if I’m fishing at the south end of the lake while the fish or up north, I can’t catch them.

You means you can’t get discouraged. You can’t give up even if you’ve struck out a hundred times. You have to keep submitting. You have to keep writing. You have to keep trying. And most importantly of all, you have to remember that, just like fishing, writing should be a joy in and of itself. If you don’t love doing it, why bother? And if you do love it, don’t ever let it turn into a job. It’s like the bumper sticker says, “The Worst Day Fishing is Better than the Best Day Working.” Life is too short to spend your spare time doing something you don’t absolutely love.

The last thing I’ll point out in this lengthy treatise is this. The employees who get the promotions are not the ones who do just enough to get by. They are the ones who go the extra mile. Shadow Mountain never told me to do a blog tour. They didn’t tell me to start a forum. They asked me to put together a school presentation, but they didn’t tell me it should include magic tricks, rubber chickens, and the story of Captain Weenie and The Little Purple Man. I’m spending every vacation day I have (and some I don’t have) to promote this book. I’m on my way to Houston, Phoenix, Oregon, Roseville, CA, and the Bay Area, talking to thousands of kids. And at the same time, the other Shadow Mountain authors are doing the same thing.

I guess it goes back to something my dad always told me. Whatever you are going to be, be the best at it. Teacher, writer, thief, garbage man—go above and beyond what is expected of you. I’m not a hundred percent sure I’ll be successful. But is anyone ever? The launch party went well. But now I’m not playing to the hometown crowd. I’ll keep you updated every night over the next two weeks and let you know how it goes. Now I have to finish my cheese crackers and my peanuts, and hope I didn’t forget to pack anything.


9 Comments:

At 9/22/2008 1:53 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Good luck and looking forward to the updates!! Hope it all goes smoothly.

 
At 9/22/2008 2:30 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

Man, this was just the pep talk I needed today. Thanks for the glimpse behind the curtain.

 
At 9/22/2008 2:33 PM, Blogger Nancy Campbell Allen said...

I just tried to post a brilliant response but it got lost when my connection flickered out. Dang it.

What I said was that you've nailed this thing right on the head. That crucial 30% dumb luck makes all the difference. Your book crosses the right editor's desk at the right time...

Also, I like that lame saying that says if your ship hasn't come in, swim out to it. You've done a lot of swimming and I think it's fantastic. You've set the bar for impressive marketing very high and it's commendable.

I look forward to seeing where you rank your 3 elements of a good piece of writing. I know where I place the most importance, but it barely squeeks past the other two, really.

Good luck! I hope this tour is fantastic for you!

 
At 9/22/2008 2:55 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Awesome post, Jeff!

Where in the Bay Area will you be, and when?

 
At 9/22/2008 9:03 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

"the story of Captain Weenie and The Little Purple Man"

Boy, that' doesn't sound like a story I'd tell to elementary kids. I guess junior high (whatever grades those are) would be worse.

Also, DANG! that's a sweet looking website you have there. Holy Cow!

 
At 9/22/2008 11:14 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Jeff:

If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, you are the master marketer. The shamon of sales. The peerless promoter. The Alah of advertising. The Savage Salesman. Don't buy a copy of Farworld and he'll press you between plastic and take the sale plus 19 percent. He's already designed his gravestone for the Spanish Fork cemetary. It was approved by Kerry Blair last Halloween.

Here lies Jeff Savage
May He Rest In peace
[large print below the inscription in polished glow-in-the dark brass]:

Farworld $19.99
Farworld Disney Vacation Package: $1,999
Farworld Launch Party: Priceless
For everything else there's the 13the reality.

That guy who blogs on Tuesday here at the frog blog asked Jeff for an interview and darn it, he agreed. We figured he didn't have time, but that man is a tireless fool. No marketing stone will go unturned. So Mr. Tuesday, we await your interview. Even the unscripted stuff, got it Rob?

And we'll see you, Mr. Savage, back in shanty town when the last copy is sold. Good luck.

David G. Woolley

 
At 9/22/2008 11:21 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

Best of Luck, Mr. Savage. Perhaps your the next Orson Scott Card or Stephanie Meyer (in popularity, that is). I am trying to break into the ranks with a manuscript currently being reviewed at an undisclosed location just south of SLC. I think I wrote a good story so I'll be hoping for that luck thing you talked about.

I like your dad's advice, although maybe not about being the best thief you can be. Ha Ha.

I enjoy reading many of the posts on the LDStorymakers blogs. They are insightful, educational and entertaining.

Charlie

 
At 9/22/2008 11:25 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Good luck, Jeff. I admire and slightly envy your marketing skills. Mostly I just get tired thinking of all the speaking, traveling, and promoting you're doing. You've raised the bar for all those who will follow and each time that bar goes up, LDS fiction gets better--even the ones that aren't specifically marketed as LDS.

 
At 9/22/2008 11:44 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Thanks all for so much support and kindness. I'll have lots to tell when I get back--from invading possums to glue-sticking while driving. (Not recommended!) Jon, it is exactly the right story for Elementary School kids. They thik it's the funniest thing they've ever heard!

Stephanie,

I will be in Pleasant Hill Monday and Tuesday of next week.

David,

Now if I can only learn to write with your sweet prose I will be the King of fiction!

Jennie,

Coming for the best bookstore marketer I have ever seen, that is high praise indeed!

I was about to give Rob crap for not posting and suddenly realized it was still only Monday. Does that tell you how long this day has been?

 

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