Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 11 books, 95 plays and musicals, and over 100 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through Fiction Writers Connection.
Inklings: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: THE FIRST ONE DOESN'T COUNT -- Or Does It?For over thirty years, my beloved Aunt Liz has been apologizing for her waffles. The words and routine are predictably the same every brunch. "Don't look at the first one," she says, hurriedly plucking it away before anyone can comment. Uncle Bob, just as constant in his own way, offers the endearing rejoinder, "It's probably just fine."
"The next one will be better," she retorts. "It always is."
And so it goes. Not just with waffles but with the phenomenon of First Books as well.
One of the most frequent excuses I encounter from wannabe authors about why they haven't written anything yet is, "I'm waiting until I have enough time." Somehow they have equated their goal with the heavens suddenly opening up one day and showering them with lots of free months and years. The truth of the matter is that those who truly possess a passion for prose will do so with whatever meager quantities of time they can grab throughout their workaday lives. Whether or not their virgin effort ever sells is incidental to the bigger picture of seeing their commitment through to completion. The significance of The First Book Experience shouldn't be underestimated. Herein are four stories why.
I CAN'T BELIEVE I SAID THAT
Maggie already had several sales under her publishing belt when she asked if I'd mind reading one of her books and rendering an opinion. The fact that this particular novel already had a readership, of course, speaks to the subjective nature of writing; whether I liked it or not had absolutely no bearing on its marketability. Nonetheless, as I later commented on some of the story's weaker elements, I was surprised to hear Maggie voice the same criticisms. "I wrote it over ten years ago," she said, "back before I had any clue what I was doing!"
The Moral: Like fine wine, writers should get better with age. After you're finished cringing from reading what "the younger you" once thought was totally brilliant, take a moment to praise yourself for recognizing how far you've come.
HOLD ALL MY CALLS UNLESS IT'S LETTERMAN
Like a proud father, Bob was busily dispensing virtual cigars. His baby--weighing in at a hefty 111,000 words--had just rolled out of the printer only two days before. Bob was already predicting a stellar future. "Do you think this suit would look good for the Letterman show," he asked, "or should I go with something more conservative?" The manuscript, mind you, hadn't even been circulated yet.
It was hard to fault Bob for his giddiness. We've all been there, catapulted into euphoria at the joy of having finished something monumental, even more exalted by the realization that total strangers will actually pay money for it.
The very first agent he sent it to felt that the story had promise. "It just needs a few tweaks by a book doctor to get it 'ready'," she said. Not surprisingly, she just happened to know someone who could whip Bob's plot into salable shape...and provide her a nice kickback for the referral. Convinced that his entire future was riding on the success of this, his first completed tome, he proceeded to shell out the requisite fees to ensure his future place on the bestseller list.
Nearly two years and $10,000 later, Bob's book has yet to meet the agent's obscure definition of "ready." Disillusioned by the entire venture, his first try also turned out to be his last.
The Moral: Beware of anyone who promises to make your book a star for "X" amount of money. Nor is it wise to pounce on the first acceptance that comes along; too often in the happy distraction of just having finished the damn thing, it's easy for one's judgment to be impaired.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Of all the students I've mentored, there are few I'm quite as proud of as Lynn. I still recall her coming up to me after a lecture one summer evening and clutching a thick binder that contained her first attempt at "serious" fiction. "I really want to do something with this," she declared. With absolutely no background in structure, characterization, or conflict, she had merrily plunged headlong into a macabre medical thriller, utilizing every clichÈ imaginable and casting mobster villains whose language was straight from Central Stereotype. Still, her enthusiasm for the craft of writing was hard to ignore. As I often used to say back in my theater days, it's easier to direct someone who has no talent but lots of heart than to work with an accomplished actor who feels that he already knows everything.
Without any preconceived notions of what it take to be an author, Lynn was not only receptive to what I had to teach her, but open to suggestions from her peers as well. Week after week, she'd excitedly return to the group with a sheaf full of rewrites. With each subsequent draft, her writing began to improve.
Lynn also began drafting her next book. Even from the first chapter, it was evident how much she'd absorbed from the ongoing process of critique. "My third one will be even better," she predicts, having learned something that many fledgling writers don't stay in the game long enough to realize; specifically, that the journey is as much fun as the destination.
The Moral: You need to write a first book if for no other reason than to get all the bugs out and discover just how much you don't know.
CAN YOU SAY "CATHARSIS"?
I always promised my best friend Susan that someday she'd see the title, WHEN IT RAINS, in print. Its inclusion in this column, however, could well be the extent of it: the novel to which it's attached is now starting its 16th year of dust in the hall closet. It's not that I never sent it out--quite the contrary. I sent it to everyone. Fortunately, they all had the good sense to reject it and save me the embarrassment of having to later run out and buy every single copy ever published.
The problem wasn't the writing itself. Several editors, in fact, were generous in their praise of the snappy dialogue and scene descriptions. What they had a hard time swallowing was the "unlikely premise." To add insult to injury, one of them even opined that the two female leads were "one-dimensional."
Considering that the whole book was based on my friendship with Susan, you can imagine my reaction. It wasn't until long afterward I finally figured out that the reason I had penned this quirky account to begin with had absolutely nothing to do with getting it published. I also realized that the only audience who could ever really appreciate its depth and hilarity were the two who had already lived the real version.
The premise was borne of our respective experience--12 years apart--with the same man. I had known of Susan long before we ever met, owing to my divorced boyfriend's constant references to his "rotten ex-wife." Lo and behold, by the time he dumped me for someone else, who should happen to cross my path but--yes, you guessed it--the rotten ex-wife. To my even greater amazement, we could very well have been sisters for as much as we discovered we had in common. The resulting amusement level that sprang from speculating how our mutual Lothario would react to this unexpected development was enough fodder, I thought, for a full-length tale.
I mention all of this for three reasons. The first is the off chance that somewhere a publisher is reading this and thinking, "Wow! What a cool plot! It's exactly what I'm looking for." The second is to reinforce that it's not every First Book's destiny to be sold. Sometimes the only purpose of writing one is simply to test our mettle to write everything else that will follow. Third, is the fact that "catharsis" isn't synonymous with "commercial."
The Moral: Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction but that doesn't mean it's print-worthy. While the experience itself can't be dispatched as easily as a bad waffle, our narrative of it can, making room for something much, much better!