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This article originally appeared in issue #13 of Write Now Magazine, August 2006.
Published by Twomorrows Publishing.

And Don't Forget To Buy My Novel

I'm writing this article in the hope that maybe it'll help or inspire someone. I know that when I was starting out as a writer I loved to hear other writer's experiences and I still do.

What I'm going to tell you about is how I wrote my new novel, a humorous fantasy called, And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess: why I wrote it, and how I sold it. I'll also discuss the differences between writing prose and other forms.

In order to give you some context, first I need to mention a little about my background. I began my writing career by performing stand-up comedy I'd written for myself. I did this until I started writing for other comedians, then magazines, nationally syndicated comic strips and eventually, for TV as well. How did all this writing come about? I had gotten to know people through performing, which led to assignments. During this period I didn't have an agent.

Looking back now, I realize what I was doing was right, though I didn't know it then. I was doing the two things that I believe are crucial for success, not just in writing, but in any career. I was developing my craft, meaning writing a lot, and I was being social. I was putting myself in environments where I met people, and making real friends. Now they call it "networking." I thought I was just hanging around.

These two things—developing your craft and being social—can't be stressed enough. One without the other is like trying to create water using just the H without the 2 0. If you're the greatest writer in the world and you isolate in a small cabin on a tiny island, chances are that you'll have piles of unsold work. I know because I did just that for a while. I had a romantic notion that I needed complete solitude.

I moved out of New York City for some years to a remote little cabin in the middle of nowhere. I wrote a lot, since there was nothing else to do, but I vanished from the civilized world. Some people even thought I'd died. Needless to say, being dead may not be the best thing you can do for your career. It was during this time that I went from writing monologues, jokes, movie scripts, plays, comic strips and panel cartoons, all of which are essentially dialogue driven (or spoken) to writing short stories and then novels.

It's been said that movies are about action, TV is about plot, plays are about dialogue, but novels (and short stories) are about thoughts and feelings. And to a certain extent that's true. Obviously, a novel or a short story must have action and a plot and all the other elements that make it readable and entertaining, but in a novel you can go so much deeper than in the other forms. Novels allow for more detail, description, and nuance. You can create a character's moods, emotions, psychology, philosophy and history, in ways that no other medium will allow.

At a certain point I realized that everything I'd been writing was a blueprint for something else that required other people. Jokes required a comedian to tell them, scripts (either plays or movies) required actors and directors. Only novels and short stories required no one but me. When I finish writing a novel or short story it's in its final form. It doesn't have to be turned into anything, and it doesn't need collaborators. And novels and short stories aren't subject to changes by other people (except one's editor). Scripts I've written were changed by actors; some cartoonists I've worked for rewrote my material to the point where I didn't even recognize it when it was published. But with a novel, you write the dialogue, you build the sets, design the clothing, light it, direct it, even do the make-up.

Don't get the wrong idea, I think my novel And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess, would make a wonderful film, but it doesn't need or have to be a film. It already exists as a complete work. The good part is, if you like it, I wrote it. The bad part is, if you don't like it, I can't say that the director ruined it.

My transition from script writer to prose writer began with short stories. I began by writing serious fantasy, science fiction, and mystery stories. I've always loved those genres and thought it would be a good place to start. (I also wrote some non-genre stories as well). I sent them to magazines appropriate for the genre (or lack thereof) they were written in, and got personal letters from editors encouraging me to send more. This is a very good thing, even though at that point they weren't buying yet.

One night, I happened to be in a computer chat room (back in that isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere) when I got into a "conversation" with a woman. She seemed to know a lot about writing, SF and fantasy writing in particular. I would talk with her quite regularly. It turned out that she was a literary agent and eventually she asked to see some of my work. I sent her a bunch of my SF and fantasy short stories. She loved them and sold one immediately to an anthology.

After that I began selling fairly regularly to anthologies, mostly in fantasy and SF, but also in mystery and horror. I eventually sent her my novel, which she sent to some editors who passed on it. The editors all said that they thought that I was a good writer, but felt that my humorous fantasy novel was not for them because it was "too funny" One editor told me that, "We don't like humorous fantasy because we and our readers take this stuff very seriously." My thought was, if you can't make fun of trolls, elves, and dragons, who can you make fun of? And, anyway, there is a long tradition of humorous fantasy fiction by such wonderful writers as John Collier, Thorne Smith, Robert Sheckley, Frederic Brown, not to mention Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), and the first novel ever written (in the second century A.D.), by Apuleius, The Golden Ass—a story about a man who angers a witch and is then turned into a donkey by her.

But back to my life. It turned out that this agent who liked my serious short stories was not a big fan of humor. Because of that, she felt that she couldn't adequately represent me, so we parted amicably. Then I sent out my novel to more editors. They rejected it.

By the way, And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess is the most fun I've ever had while writing. I would laugh out loud while I was working on it. I've written for well known comedians and major comic strips without doing that. Enjoying what you do is always a good idea if you can.

Let me tell you a little bit about And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess. It's about an unemployed actor who played a Viking in a TV commercial for a pizza restaurant. A wizard in another world (a parallel dimension?) sees this commercial on his crystal ball, thinks this actor is a real Viking, and zaps him into a medieval world. The actor is brought before a king who tells him that he (the actor) must go on a quest to rescue a kidnapped princess. If he refuses he will be executed. If he succeeds he will be sent back to his own world. The king teams him up with a cowardly knight, and then mayhem ensues.

Since I've always loved fantasy, I tried to put in as many clichés of the genre as I could think of, but make them all funny. And I didn't just want to make it funny; I wanted it to have a real story as well. I didn't want it to be a parody of any particular fantasy novel, but a send up of the entire genre. I also wanted the humor to come out of the personalities of the characters, not just be jokey (though the novel has no shortage of jokey moments).

I thought about what it would be like if I were thrown into a fantasy world. How would I deal with things? Would I be scared? Absolutely. Would I be heroic? I don't think so. And what if I were stuck with a guy who was even more scared than I was? And what if I needed him in order to survive? These are the sort of questions I asked myself as I was writing my novel. How do I keep the emotions real, even though most of the situations are unreal, and also still make it funny? A lot of questions to answer. That's a big part of writing—asking yourself questions and then trying to answer them. And keep in mind, one question may have many answers, and a number of them may be the right one, but it's your job to choose which is your right answer.

But back to selling my novel, or not selling it. I sent the novel out to more editors. In the meantime, I wrote and sold more short stories to anthologies and magazines and did other freelance writing jobs. All the while my novel continued to get rejected. I even sent the novel to other agents, but to no avail. Then one day I was in a local bookstore and saw a trade paperback that had the same title as a mass market paperback where one of my short stories had appeared few years earlier. The cover was different, so my first thought was that it was another book with the same title. Then I opened the book and sure enough, my story was in it. It had been reprinted and nobody had told me. But wait a minute thought, I'd moved a few times, so maybe they'd lost track of me.

The next day I called the editor and told him I'd seen the book with my story in it and gave him my new address, which he didn't have. Everything would be taken care of. He was very nice. Then I thought, while I have him on the phone why not ask him if there are any new anthologies coming up that I could send him a story for? I asked him. He replied that there weren't any. I was about to thank him and hang up when he mentioned that he was editing a new line of fantasy and SF novels, and did I have anything? "Well," I said, "I have this humorous fantasy!' I was sure he'd say, "What else do you have?"

But what he said was, "Let me take a look at it."

So I sent off, And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess, figuring that would be the end of that.

Meanwhile, I mailed the novel to yet another agent expecting yet another rejection. Well, the agent didn't disappoint me. She held onto it for three months and then sent it back. After her rejection I felt really bad. That's when I thought about the editor I'd sent the novel to. So the next day I decided to call him. I remember thinking I may as well get this rejection over with, too. That way I'll get both out of the way one after the other and be done with them—like having to swallow two really bad-tasting pills. At least you know that when it's over, it's over.

I called the editor, got him on the phone, and was about to ask him if he'd gotten to my novel yet, when he said, "You don't read your e-mail very often, do you?" My heart sank. I figured that he was going to tell me he'd rejected it by e-mail. And not only that but I was annoying him by calling. Now I felt guilty that I was bothering him and wasting his time.

"You're right," I said, "I don't look at my e-mail very often." "Well," he said, "you ought to. We sent you a contract two months ago" I remember looking at the phone receiver like an actor in a bad 1930's screwball comedy. I was sure that I'd misheard him. "Uh," I finally replied, "could you repeat what you just said?" "We're buying your novel," he said. "We love it."

I stammered a bit, then had him repeat it again just to make sure it wasn't some sort of auditory illusion. It wasn't. I'd found a publisher for my novel. The months that followed were surreal. My editor was wonderful to work with, suggesting only minor changes and even giving me the option of whether or not to make them. How do you argue with someone who tells you that a character in your novel is great and wonders if you could give him just a few additional funny lines?

Naturally, every writer wants their work to bring them great financial rewards. Writing is, after all, a business as well as an art. But as far as I'm concerned, And Don't Forget to Rescue the Princess is already a success before I even get my first royalty statement. It's been published in a beautiful hardcover edition and received some wonderful reviews, including one from Publishers Weekly. The book is available on Amazon and on many other online booksellers, in bookstores and is also in libraries. The fact that people are reading it is the fulfillment of a dream. And if I could get a novel published, maybe you can, too.

Here are a few things I did along the way and some of what I learned. A lot of them may sound like clichés about writing—but it turns out that they're true.

  1. Persistence pays off. If I'd put my novel in a drawer after a few rejections and stopped sending it out I never would have sold it. But it can take years of rejection.
  2. I wrote in genres and styles that I knew and liked, specifically, fantasy and humor.
  3. You never know who will like your work and help you. (And who won't).
  4. I wrote a lot.
  5. I read in and out of my fields of interest in both fiction and non-fiction.
  6. I tried writing in different forms.
  7. I recognized that learning to write (or writing in a new area) can take time and requires belief and patience.
  8. I appreciated all successes, large and small.
  9. My measure of success is not solely financial. I realized that the work itself can be very gratifying.
  10. I found out that I needed a community of people and that nothing thrives in a vacuum.

Copyright © 2009 by Marc Bilgrey

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