Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for January, 2010

“Write what you know.”  I haven’t been to a lot of writers’ workshops or taken a lot (or any) courses on writing, but that is one piece of advice that I have heard plenty of times.  “Write what you know” makes sense.  You can best tap into your characters’ emotions and states of mind when you have felt something similar.  I call on my experience playing American football when I write battle scenes.  I try to visit all of the cities that I write about so that I can convey what if felt like to walk their streets for the first time.  This is all well and good, but there is a danger in taking “write what you know” too far.  Obviously, if you are writing a science-fiction book, you should not attempt to build a rocket and shoot yourself into space to get a feel for your subject matter.  And time machines are (unfortunately) out of the question for writers of historical fiction.  This seems obvious enough, but all too often writers of novels set in contemporary times take “write what you know” to mean they should write about themselves.

While living in Paris, I attended a writers’ workshop in the musty attic of a suitably atmospheric English-language bookstore.  In the first meeting, when we went around the room to introduce what we were writing about, it sounded more like group therapy than authors sharing the plots of their novels.  A twenty-something guy who bounced from relationship to relationship as he struggled to find himself was writing about a twenty-something with little direction in life, bouncing from relationship to relationship.  A middle-aged man with fond memories of his trip to Cuba in the ’60s was writing about a young man in the ’60s who takes a trip to Cuba.  A retired diplomat was writing about an aging diplomat.  You get the idea.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with semi-autobiographical novels, but writing them does run the risk of degenerating into a sort of literary masturbation.  The problem is that most people’s lives are simply not interesting, at least not to anyone other than themselves.  Would I want to read the fictional version of my life?  Um, no.  Not unless it was written by Richard Russo, Graham Swift, or the like.  A great writer—one with cutting insight into human nature and an ability to breath life into characters so that they seem more real than the people we pass on the streets—can make just about any story into a thing of beauty.  Books like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or Russo’s Bridge of Sighs are great examples.  The plots of these books are not particularly interesting.  What makes them great is the writing, the authors’ ability paint settings in vivid colors and to bring characters to life.  For authors like Roy and Russo, plot is a secondary consideration.  I think I would happily read a grocery list written by Arundhati Roy.

Unfortunately, most of us (and I definitely include myself in this category) are not great writers.  We may be competent, skilled, even highly talented, but very few of us are so great that we can get by on only the beauty of our prose.  If our writing is not enough, then we need something else: we need great stories.  And for most of us, that means that writing the fictionalized story of our life is not going to be good enough.  The good news is that being a great storyteller is much easier than being a great writer.  There are a million wonderful stories out there—historical epics, sci-fi adventures, period romances, corporate intrigues, family dramas.  If you’re having trouble making one up on your own, then find a real world even that inspires you—like the fall of Constantinople—and write about that.  Just remember this rule of thumb: you can almost always sum up a good story in one or two sentences.  If you find yourself rambling on for half-an-hour when people ask what your novel is about, then you might have a problem.

Next week, I’ll write more about finding a great story.  Until then, don’t forget that “write what you know” is not an invitation to literary masturbation.  Use your experiences but don’t stick to them.  After all, I didn’t have to be an Italian mercenary bent on revenge or a headstrong Byzantine princess devoted to saving her empire in order to write Siege… and thank God for that!

Last weekend my wife and I went to the Crystal City mall to return some clothes.  (I love the name “Crystal City.”  It’s evocative of The Wizard of Oz or maybe Superman’s fortress of solitude.  In fact, it’s an ugly, concrete, soulless suburb, filled with hotels for business travelers.  The mall is nice, though.)  We arrived a few minutes before the stores we wanted to visit were open, and so we headed into the Apple store to browse.  While playing with one of the i-phones on display, I had a brilliant idea.  I opened my webpage and then put the phone back, so that the first thing the next person who picked up the phone would see would be Jack Hight… Siege.  I did the same with the three other i-phones, and then with the i-pods.  The marketing campaign for Siege had officially begun.

Next up, I’m hitting the public computers at the local library.  Then, who knows?  Maybe I’ll head over to the Georgetown campus and pull up Siege on all the computers there.  There’s a whole world of possibilities.  Lately, I find myself slowing down when I pass computer or cell phone stores.  Now that I’m looking, opportunities for my underground advertising campaign are all around me.

This is not exactly the sort of thing I imagined doing when I used to dream about becoming a novelist.  Mostly, I thought about writing.  I figured that once I finished my book, I would sell it and that would be that.  I occasionally allowed myself to dream of a huge advance.  Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, got a $250,000 advance for her book (the title alone was worth that much).  Stephenie Meyer got $750,000 for Twilight.  I spotted a trend here.  $250,000, $750,000… was I in line for $1.25 million?  Um, no.

Huge advances are not normal, particularly for first time novelists.  What’s more, advances are not what I once thought they were: a lump sump payment for the book.  Writers are paid through royalties, and an advance is money given in advance of royalties earned.  Writers receive no royalty payments until they have earned back their advance.  So in the case of The Devil Wears Prada, the first $250,000 that Weisberger made from royalties went towards the advance.  The good news is that the publisher will not take back your advance if you don’t sell enough books to cover it.  However, it is a very bad thing not to fulfill your advance, because it means that the publisher is not making money on your book.  This is unlikely to win you a second book deal.  So, the first goal of any book is to earn back the advance.  After that, every time a book sells, the author gets paid.

In my case, I received an advance for both Siege and Eagle, the first novel of the Saladin Trilogy.  So great: I’ve been paid!  I’m a working writer!  Only I didn’t get the advance all at once, because that’s not how it works.  Wisely, the publisher keeps the carrot dangling before me.  The advance is divided up into chunks, which are doled out as I complete certain goals: so much for signing with the publisher; so much when Siege comes out in hardback; so much for turning in a draft of Eagle; and so on and so forth.  In the end, the bits and pieces of the advance are not enough to live on.  (Thank God for my day job—academia—where they let me eat my carrot before I’ve written anything.)

But the size of the advance is not really important because in the end, (prepare for a shocking revelation…) what makes an author money is selling books.  If the book is a bestseller, then the author will earn the same amount of money, regardless of how much he or she got up front.  It works more or less as follows.  The author receives royalties of around 10% on the first ten-thousand or so hardback copies sold (the numbers are subject to negotiation); 12.5% on the next ten-thousand; and 15% on every book thereafter.  Royalties are lower (5 to 7%) for paperbacks.  If the author is lucky, then these royalties are based on the sale price.  However, sometimes royalties are based on the publisher’s net earnings.  Since publishers have a lot of people to pay—copy editors, managing editors, publicists, marketers, etc.—the net earnings are often only a fraction of the cover prices, maybe $4 for a $10 book.  At that rate, the author would make only $4000 if they sold 10,000 copies of their book.  Even if they were getting paid based on the sales price, they would still make only $10,000.  That’s not bad, but it’s also not exactly a guaranteed road to riches.

The point is that in order to make lots of money, an author has to sell lots of books.  And this is where my underground marketing campaign comes into play.  As the release date for Siege (May 27) approaches, look forward to seeing my website popping up on an i-phone or computer in a store near you.  You can do your part, too.  Tell your family to buy Siege.  Tell your friends, your co-workers, your enemies.  And don’t be afraid to stop in your nearest Apple store and bring my website up on every i-phone you can get your hands on.

Tune in for next week’s blog: ‘Write what you know’ does not mean write all about yourself.

After weeks of gloomy days and bitter cold, D.C. is once again sunny and (relatively) warm.  It’s a great day to be outside—a not so great day to be sitting in a coffee shop.  Today is one of those days where the last thing I want to do is to write.  (Well, maybe not the last thing—it beats cleaning out septic tanks or working in a coal mine—but you get the idea.)  On days like these, I think of what my high school football coach used to tell me: “When you don’t want to do the work, and you do it anyway, that’s when you get better.  Think of the other players sitting at home on the couch while you’re out here busting your butt.  Today, you took another step towards beating them.”  So now, when I don’t want to write, I think of those other writers at home on their couches, and I attack the keyboard with renewed vigor.

Or, I do the next best thing and take out the proofs for Siege.  Proofs are a mock-up showing what the printed version of the novel will look like.  It’s my job to go through them, correct any errors that I find, and make cosmetic changes where necessary.  I also have to check to make sure that I approve of any changes the copy editor has made.  Since my publisher is British, the changes sometimes seem rather odd to me.  For instance, I have learned that in British English “dead-end” is apparently not a verb.  So instead of saying “the alley dead-ended,” the copy editor inserts, “the alley became a dead end.”  Huh?  That’s no good either, so it’s up to me to find a third option.

I find this sort of work therapeutic.  It’s a kind of problem solving that exercises a completely different portion of my brain.  It’s something to do when I don’t feel like writing.  And luckily, it’s a never-ending process.  After I send back the first set of proofs, the publisher sends me more proofs to look over, and then another set, and so on until the book is finally printed.  Novels, I am learning, truly are never done until they finally end up on the bookstore shelf.  I find this comforting.  It’s nice to know that Siege is still there after all these years, ready for me to work on it whenever I want.  I wonder what it will be like when it is finally gone?  I suppose I’ll still have Eagle: Book One of the Saladin Trilogy.  I finished draft two last week (hallelujah!).  It’s looking good, and I have high hopes for avoiding the curse of the second novel (knock on wood).

Next time, I promise to get around to how authors get paid, aka Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune… For now, it’s back to writing.  Those other writers are a bunch of lollygaggers, taking it easy on their couches.  I’ve got to beat them!  (Beat them at what?  How?  I don’t know.  I just know I’m on the path to victory!)

On the weekend before Christmas, Washington, DC was hit by a blizzard that dropped sixteen inches of snow on the city in twenty-four hours.  DC is not equipped to deal with that kind of weather.  Cars were buried.  The roads were impassible.  Even the subway ground to a near standstill.  At the end of the storm, I braved the weather and went downtown to see Avatar.  The streets of the city were empty, covered in a blanket of untouched, powdery snow.  Most of the restaurants and stores were closed.  Only a few tourists were out trudging through the snow, the uncertain footing and their resultant stumbling gates making them appear zombie-like.  The city looked positively post-apocalyptic.

It was the perfect evening to escape to the richly detailed world of Avatar.  Say what you want about the simplicity of the movie’s storyline, but their can be no denying the beauty and originality of the world that James Cameron has created.  I am a big Cameron fan, and after seeing Avatar, it struck me that perhaps one key to his success (besides having gargantuan budgets) is that he produces, writes and directs his films.  This gives him a level of creative control that is rare in the film world.  A bad screenplay or poor producer can undermine even the best of directors (think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).  More commonly—or so my screenwriter friends tell me—perfectly good screenplays are ruined by incompetent directors.  And a bad lead actor or actress can doom the efforts of all involved, as Ben Affleck has made a career of demonstrating.

This is yet another reason why I love writing novels.  As a novelist, I have total control over the end product; I play the role of writer, director, and actor.  There is no one to blame but myself if things don’t turn out as I planned.  I get to be James Cameron for every one of my books.

However, writers still need “producers,” and that is where editors come in.  Editors perform many of the same functions as movie producers, who select projects (i.e. purchase the rights to books, screenplays, TV shows, or other properties that can be turned into movies), commission screenplays, and oversee filming.  First, editors read the manuscripts that agents or writers send them and pick the ones that they think can sell as books.  As regards first time authors, they’re (I think) looking primarily for two things: 1) a great story that they can sell; and 2) a writer who will do the hard work to make that story even better.  Editors are not in the business of fixing flawed manuscripts.  Editors edit; they do not rewrite.  That is the job of the novelist.  The editor will provide vital feedback (sections that might be cut; places where more is needed; plot issues that need to be worked out), but the writer does the rewriting.

This is because editors are busy doing other things.  They have a never-ending stream of manuscripts to read and other books to edit.  And, once they have edited a book, they still have to serve as the coordinator of its production, publicity, and marketing.  An editor works with artists and designers to produce the cover.  (And I think they did a wonderful job for SIEGE.)  She works with the production editor, who oversees the copy-editing and the process of getting the book printed (picking the type; delivering the proofs; scheduling the printing).  She works with the publicity director to make sure that the book gets reviewed.  And, she coordinates with the marketing and sales department to try to get the book displayed as prominently as possible in as many bookstores as possible.  If you’ve ever wondered who decides which books end up on the newly released shelf or on that table you see when you first walk into a bookstore, well, editors have a lot do with that.

In short, editors are the “producers” of novels, working with the author and the publishing house personnel to guide novels from manuscripts to the hardbacks sitting on the shelves at bookstores.  They have a huge role in a book’s success… which is why I thank my lucky star (and my agent) that I have a great one.

Tune in next week to learn how authors get paid, aka Sorry, writing a novel is not a quick path to fame and fortune…



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