Today we have some sage advice for writers from a proven practitioner of the art and craft of literary commerce who’s had a successful career as a writer for more than 50 years.
Warren Adler has published more than 32 novels and short story collections, including The War of the Roses, which was made into the devastatingly funny movie starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. That story grew out of an overheard conversation, incidentally. More on that below. Adler studied writing at the New School with fellow students Mario Puzzo and William Styron.
I’ve spent my whole life writing, thinking about writing and publishing, and, lately, about the dramatic changes taking place in the way we communicate with each other and how it impacts our future as writers.
So here’s where I am these days on the most important things to remember if you want to succeed.
• Never give up
Deciding to be a writer may be impractical, unwise, foolish, pure madness, but if you believe in yourself, why not, as Lewis Carroll wrote, “go on until the end, and then stop.”
To be a writer requires a healthy ego, total self-confidence in your talent, and an unshakeable belief that you have been anointed with the right stuff. You’ll need obsessive focus, a draconian ruthlessness and total devotion to a belief in your artistic ability. Fancy words, I know, but with the absence of luck, you will need these attributes to sustain you through the process.
What this means for real authors is that we must continue to soldier on — keep writing, keep trying, taking the increasingly painful hits of rejection after rejection until, well, until someone out there catches on…or doesn’t. We’re all waiting for Godot. Sometimes he comes.
• Eavesdropping for story ideas
I’m always writing a story in my head and never pass up the chance to listen in on a good conversation (even bad ones). The idea for The War of the Roses came to me at a dinner party in Washington. One of our friends was dating a lawyer, who was her guest at the party. At some point, he looked at his watch and announced that he had to get home or his wife would lock him out of the house. When asked why, he said he was in the process of getting a divorce but had to keep living under the same roof, so part of the agreement was a strict set of rules on coming and goings.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years people have accused me of “stealing their divorces.” I tried countering this accusation by explaining that a novel’s story grows out of a novelist’s imagination and the amalgamation of observations and experiences, but to no avail.
• Read the news
Many great books have come out of investigative journalism and breaking hard news.
My third novel, The Henderson Equation, was inspired by the Washington Post’s relentless pursuit of President Richard Nixon. Every day, there are fascinating, unbelievable stories in the mainstream newspapers and magazines plus a flood of other websites, special blogs and other less formal sources. So keep your eyes open.
• Keep it short
Endless paragraphs were okay for Proust, but readers today want their portions in smaller gulps. The internet has forced many of us to compress the way we communicate. Many younger readers are addicted to brevity and abbreviation. Faced with this reality, authors can concentrate their talents on short stories and novellas.
I’m a heavy practitioner of these shorter forms as well and love reading them, but I hope they don’t become so commonplace as to supersede the novel. What would we do without the long novel by the great novelists who composed them e.g. Tolstoy, Dickens et al. And don’t forget such modern writers long-form successes as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.
• Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
The secret of great writing is rewriting. I rewrite constantly, over and over again until I’m reasonably satisfied. Then I rewrite again. I usually can’t tell if I got it right until I’ve written one hundred pages or so. At that point that I either abandon the book or slog on.
• Get an agent
It never hurts to have a professional troubleshooter, sales person, and industry contact on your side, whether you want to be published by a big commercial house or self-publish. More and more agents, by the way, are representing self-published authors to sell their books’ film, TV, and translation rights. They also flip books to commercial houses if they’ve already sold well when originally self-published.
Getting an agent, though, can be tough. Start by asking friends who might have one and introduce you. Go to a bookstore reading or writer’s conference where agents are scheduled to appear. Search on line to check out the list of authors they represent. Or get a copy of Literary Market Place at any library. Then write a one-page query letter, beginning with “Are you interested in a finished manuscript (or book proposal). Spell out the theme, contents, and why you’re the best person to write it. Email it to every agent who has the kind of authors you respect and see what comes back.
• Find your passionate readers
Whether you get a publisher or decide to self-publish, you’re going to wind up doing most of the marketing on your own. Luckily there are many new ways you can locate and make contact with potential readers, either in person, and especially online.
There are pockets of passionate readers springing up everywhere – readers groups, special interest book bloggers, chat rooms and forums about all kinds of books, like romance fiction, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy-sci-fi, or nonfiction categories like parenting, travel, cooking.. Many smart, serious authors pursue these devoted and passionate readers for their work.
• Build a website and blog
I’ve got a website, so please pay me a visit. I also have a blog that features essays and columns about writing and getting published. If you’re an author today, you should have one, since it’s such a great way to create an online following that will want to read and ultimately buy your books. It’s easy, fun, and essential if you want to be a successful author these days.
• Get Book Reviews
Never overlook the crucial job of finding reviewers for your work. The more reviews you accumulate, the more curiosity is built around your book – sparking curiosity is the key to making any work attractive to potential readers.
My website currently features a “Book Review Bonanza…Join the Giveaway, Pick a Book, Write a Review” which is meant to offer readers a look at some of my original novels before they hit the silver screen in 2015-2016.
• Reread your favorite novels
This is one thing I usually always find myself doing when I am on the verge of experiencing writer’s block. I go for the ones that once inspired me to be a writer in the first place. One of my favorite books is The Red and the Black by Stendhal, not surprisingly, it makes an appearance in my new novel Treadmill.
Warren Adler’s stage adaptation of his novel The War of the Roses will premiere on Broadway in 2015-2016. Also in recent development is The War of the Roses – The Children, a feature film adaptation of the sequel to Adler’s iconic divorce story. His newest thriller Treadmill has just been released.