Thursday, December 12, 2013

Your Ideas Are Your Capital

The other day I was listening to an aspiring writer tell me about the novel he's writing. He mentioned that he had ideas for further novels, but was unsure whether to spend the effort developing them before he saw whether agents / editors / readers would be interested in this first book. He asked what I thought.

I told him that in my own case, ideas have broken through for me before a finished work did. Although I sold my first four novels to a publisher myself, it wasn't a novel that got me representation. Hungry for a bigger audience, I set out to write a novel good enough to score me a hardcover contract with a big house. I wrote the novel and shopped it around to agents. One read it and called me up. "You're obviously a terrific writer," she said, "but I just don't think I can sell this book. What other ideas do you have?" I told her a few, and she asked me to develop them a little more on paper. I did so, and she got back to me saying, "I really like this one about the actress. If you can write that one, I think I can sell it." Which is what happened, and The Actress debuted in hardcover with Minotaur Books (MacMillan). I've been with Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency ever since.

The same thing happened the first time I approached Writer's Digest magazine. I wrote up a detailed inquiry about an article I'd like to write for them, and decided at the last minute to throw in a few other ideas at the bottom, just in case. The editor got back to me and said in a nice way that my main idea sucked, but they'd like me to write an article based on one of the little ones in the last paragraph. So I did, and have written more than 30 feature articles for them to date.

Which, I realized, exactly parallels something I learned in Hollywood. A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to meet with a television executive to discuss making my first mystery series, the Lillian Byrd books, into a cable TV series. Over a meal at a hip restaurant in West Hollywood (I felt existentially enviable) we talked about my books in detail, how the series might be structured, and even threw around casting ideas.

Then the executive asked if I'd be willing to be a writer for the show.

"Sure," I said, "but I thought you guys usually just bought the material and had other people write the scripts."

She said, "You don't understand. It's not so much that we want this material you've written. We want your talent; we want YOU."

"Oh," I said.

She explained, "You were thinking about how the movies work. The movies want a script. TV wants a writer."

As it turned out, the executive couldn't get the big shots on board with the project. But thinking about all that later, I realized that publishing is like television production: agents, editors, and readers don't want a book, they want an author. They want somebody who can write great, compelling book after great, compelling book. They want an idea machine.

So there you have it, aspiring authors. Write up all of your best ideas and have them in your back pocket. Get started on that next novel! Come the time to start putting your first baby out into the world, your newer stuff just might be instrumental in your breakthrough.

Special notes for this week:

Local friends, check out the Florida Writer's Association Bradenton Mini-Conference in January, just in time for that New Year's writing resolution:
I'll be there doing a workshop and a writing-prompts session. Check out the other faculty; some pretty accomplished people will be there, all with the goal of helping you. I guarantee you'll deepen your talent and have fun doing it.

And to follow up on last weeks' post: I've received my package of Dragon software and will set it up soon. The shoulder is improving with drugs and therapy.

[Photo note: Hollywood landscape with smog-induced soft focus by ES.]

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.


  1. Your experience is fascinating and awe inspiring.

    I usually don't remember the names of authors of magazine articles, but I found that I kept highlighting passages and cutting out key lines from yours. Your article is the one I run too when my magazine comes in the mail. I'm grateful. Although I haven't started them yet, your Rita Farmer series is definitely on my TBR list. You have a natural talent. Put someone with a lesser ability in your exact experiences, and they wouldn't have been able to do as you did. (Sorry if this comment is wonky but thank you is what I'm trying to say...and I'm not stalking you...unless I discover were both attending the same conference and then all bets are off. Wicked LOL) Tabitha

    1. Tabitha, you makin' my day... The talent question is an interesting one. Talent can be developed, but there does have to be a seed.

  2. I agree with Tabitha.Love your no nonsense advice and inspiration. No writer could stay sluggish after all that whammo. I discovered you on Writer's Digest and now I'm here to stay.

    1. Welcome to another Elizabeth! I hope you keep finding good things here. Best on your writing.


Tell us your thoughts! You know you want to.