Dan Koboldt: Nine Years A Penmonkey, And Nine Lessons
I’m pretty sure Dan is a Kobold, and just isn’t telling us — I mean, it’s right there in his name. I keep asking, “Are you a kobold? and he keeps saying, “Stop asking me that, I’m a human being,” and then I wink at him because I know what he means. (Whisper: he’s a kobold.) Anyway! Here Dan is, offering up a bevy of lessons — nine, in fact — to match his nine years of penmonkeying around. Please to enjoy, fellow kobolds and non-kobolds.
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When Chuck generously agreed to host another guest post from me on his blog, he suggested something other than a FIVE THINGS post. Which is fine with me. I’ve told you ten things about my books already, and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with more. Instead, as I wrap up my series with Harper Voyager, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned since I started writing fiction.
In other words, these are the lessons from my nine years as a penmonkey. Nine years, nine lessons. Let’s do this.
1. Write the damn book.
Most people fancy the idea of writing a book. I have a few friends and relatives – people I’ve known for years – who are pretty fired up about it. They come up with great new ideas for stories on a regular basis. They buy special pens and notebooks (or a Macbook Air). They try new outline formulas and write-or-die apps. But they fail to do the single most important thing for someone who wants to become an author, which is to write the damn book.
If you want to be an author, you have to write (and finish) an entire book. Until you do that, you can’t query agents, pitch editors, or ask celebrities for blurbs. You have nothing to offer these people until you have a completed manuscript. And yet, so many people can’t seem to do that. Sometimes, it’s because they’re trying to get everything perfect. Perfect characters, perfect setting, perfect storyline. But perfect is the enemy of done, my friends. If you want to get anywhere, you need to be done.
Another reason many people don’t write the book is simply that writing is hard. There are lots of reasons not to do it. You work a lot. You have kids. You need to go to the gym. You can’t find your laptop’s power cord. These are all perfectly legitimate reasons not to write. If one of them works for you and you’re happy not writing, you shouldn’t. God bless. This game isn’t for everyone.
People generally fall into one of two categories when it comes to writing a book: those who talk about it, and those who do it. Over time, I can usually figure out which category someone’s in, and it rarely changes.
I can’t make you write a book. Only you can do that.
2. Double your eyeballs.
When I first dabbled in fiction in 2008, I considered myself a competent writer. I’d been writing nonfiction for several years for my day job, and I was a voracious reader. I thought I’d be good, or at least decent, when I switched to fiction.
Nope. I was pretty bad. Even worse, I didn’t know it yet. Luckily, I was in an “Introduction to Fiction Writing” class that included peer critique. My classmates gently helped me realize how terrible my writing was. Their feedback told me some of the things that I could improve.
Like most writers, I have blinders on when it comes to my own writing. We need more eyeballs on it to ferret out the weak points. Not our mom’s eyeballs, either, but the eyeballs of someone who reads in your genre. Or better yet, writes in your genre. (Always ask before using someone’s eyeballs). I refer you to my recent guest post on the NaNoWriMo blog, How and Why to Use Critique Partners.
3. The Zombie Gauntlet of Rejection
A nice side benefit of peer critique is that it helps prepare you for the pain associated with the publishing journey. As you progress in your career, criticism and rejection will be constant companions.
Think of it as trying to get past a gauntlet of rejection-zombies to the safety of your home. When you begin querying, each rejection is like an undead hand slapping you in the face. It stings, but you keep moving. When your manuscript goes on submission to editors, the rejections have more weight to them. Each one is like a punch to the guts. Sometimes, it’ll knock the wind right out of you. It helps to have an agent and writer friends who will pick you up from the dirt so you can keep going.
If you manage to get past the editor zombies, you’ve reached the door. But the acquisitions board has locked it from the other side. Many author dreams die on this threshold. Maybe you do better, and kick down that door to get published. That’s why they call it breaking in.
Even after you break in, your problems aren’t over. You simply trade them for a set of new ones. If you want to survive, you have to be mentally tough enough to take these knocks and keep going. And you need a support network of good friends to help you stay sane.
4. Luck versus persistence.
Luck matters a lot more than it should in this game. You can write a fantastic book that lands a great agent. The agent knows the perfect editor for it. Maybe that editor loves it and makes you a great offer. Or, maybe that editor signed a similar book last month, so the answer is no. Your fate, hanging in the balance, and it all comes down to luck. Nothing you can do about it.
But there’s another factor at play. Persistence. This is something you DO control, and it’s also what separates published authors from failed ones. If an agent rejects your query, send it to five more. If your first book doesn’t get a book deal, write a second one (but not a sequel). If your first novel doesn’t garner the sales or reviews or awards that you’d like, try again.
You can’t control luck, but you can be stubbornly persistent. Most successful authors are.
5. Publishing is dead! Long live publishing!
Bloggers and podcasters love to discuss the state of the publishing industry. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either stronger than ever or plunging toward certain death. Generally it’s the latter, because bad/shocking news gets more attention. That’s why you hear more about teenagers dying in car crashes than elderly people going in their sleep. When I was a new author trying to break in, I gave these “publishing pundits” too much stock. I was genuinely concerned that by the time my debut was published, physical bookstores would no longer exist.
The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Yes, the publishing industry has undergone some major changes, especially in the past two decades. Major publishers have been consolidated into five big entities. More recently, the introduction of e-readers like the Kindle fueled the rapid growth of e-books. Brick-and-mortar booksellers like Barnes & Noble are struggling to adapt to a world in which more and more consumers shop online. So are most physical retailers, by the way. Google “holiday sales 2017” if you need convincing.
The publishing industry is not dying. It is evolving. People still buy books. They just do it online because you don’t need pants to shop online. People still visit libraries, but now they can use their library cards to borrow e-books and audiobooks. People still read, but they do it on their phones.
Change is the way of the world. Smart authors, agents, and publishers adapt and survive. Those who don’t adapt will eventually fade away. It’s that simple.
6. Obscurity is the enemy
This is not to say that the success of any author (or book) is guaranteed. There has never been more competition for readers or attention, especially because consolidation has happened on the retail side as well. Thanks to e-books, most titles will never go out of print, at least digitally. The challenge is ensuring that they continue to reach new readers.
There is a form of peculiar, unknowable black magic called Sales Rank. No one truly understands the meaning of this number, but its job is to make you feel the sting of obscurity. It will spike. It will fade. It will do little dances that make authors begin to question their sanity. Ignore this dark sorcery, and you’ll be much happier.
There are two powerful weapons that aid authors in the fight against obscurity. The first is your own personal hustle: your ability to hand-sell your book to a co-worker or con-goer or the guy next to you on an airplane. This is a subtle art that takes time and practice, but ultimately can keep your book selling. The fact that you’ve written and published a book is no small achievement. Many people will read it just because of that.
The other powerful weapon is your membership in the guild of penmonkeys. You didn’t know there was a guild? Well, welcome aboard. Please send your membership fees to Chuck. Acceptable forms of payment include beaver skins, undead souls, and bees.
The guild means that you, as an author, have great power to support the work of other penmonkeys. Hand-sell their books. Review their books. Give them a voice on your platform. Others will do the same for you when it’s your turn.
7. There’s a lot you can’t change
There are many things that affect an author’s career (for better or worse) that we simply can’t change. Some of the things authors don’t control include:
- The economy
- Market trends and forces
- Any company they don’t own, such as Twitter
It’s frustrating, because as humans we like the idea that our fate is on our own hands. In many cases, it’s not. The sooner you accept that – and worry about the things that you CAN control – the happier you’ll be.
8. Comparison is the thief of joy
One of the easiest ways to become unhappy is to compare yourself to others. There will always be authors who write faster than you, get bigger advances, sell more books, and win more awards than you. You might think that some of those authors aren’t as good as you, and maybe you’re right. It doesn’t matter. Pointing it out, complaining about it, or letting the unfairness of the world bother you will not accomplish anything.
Comparison will steal your joy away. Don’t let it. Grab onto your joy, squeeze it tightly, and hit anyone who tries to take it with an axe. If you accomplish anything as a writer in these difficult times, you should celebrate. You’ll be much happier if you do.
9. Don’t be a dick
I recently joined a private discussion forum for authors where there’s one rule: don’t be a dick. Basically, that means don’t criticize when it’s not your place. Don’t marginalize or insult people because of their gender, race, orientation, or appearance. Don’t be rude. Don’t take advantage of people. It’s a simple rule for life, but some people still have trouble with it.
No one likes it when you’re a dick. YOU might feel better, but that feeling will dissipate rather quickly. However, the people who have seen you be a dick, or worse, been the target of your dick-ness, will remember it for a long time. Probably forever.
If you don’t believe in karma or doing the right thing, let me appeal to your sense of ambition. It’s a small world and an even smaller industry. When you’re a dick, word gets around. Sometimes it gets around very publicly. Odds are, you will offend someone who (either now or someday) can influence your career. Maybe they’re a book reviewer. Maybe they read slush for a magazine. Maybe they sit on an acquisitions board for a publisher that’s considering your next book. If you’re a dick to people, it will come back to bite you. Guaranteed.
You might not even know that it’s come back to bite you. No editor will end a rejection e-mail with “I was ready to buy this, until I remembered that you’re a dick.” No convention will tell you that you have not been selected as a guest of honor due to your history of dick behavior. Instead, these things just won’t happen for you. They will happen for other authors who follow the golden rule. Don’t be a dick.
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Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/science fiction author from the Midwest. He is the author of the Gateway to Alissia series (Harper Voyager) about a Las Vegas magician who infiltrates a medieval world. He is currently editing Putting the Science in Fiction, (Writers Digest), a reference for writers slated for release in Fall 2018.
By day, Dan is a genetics researcher at a major children’s hospital. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. He lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys in Ohio.
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