In 2006 I began writing Death by Cliché. The book started with a few conceits. I’d written a couple comedic short stories and felt they turned out fairly well, so I wanted to try my hand at a novel-length comedy. I had years of experience writing as a game designer at that point and I wanted to embrace every bad cliché, both in gaming and in bad fantasy fiction. So it had to be a secondary world fantasy where the main character was from our world. I had to write my own chapter quotes and call great attention to the fact. The main character had to look like a complete Marty Stu. Most of all, I wanted a high joke density so that I didn’t have to worry how many people got any one joke. I could write as obscurely as I wanted, knowing that if one out of three jokes landed with any given reader, it would still be a funny book. I call this “The Dennis Miller Quotient.” Because I’m old.
The book worked out well. There were some scenes that were hilarious when read allowed that were merely amusing on the page. Conversely, there are jokes on the page that don’t translate at all to a live reading. For instance, I wrote a chapter where I make a meta joke about the spelling of its and it’s. Still, I was happy with the result. Damico, the main character, was funny and engaging. A little bit more of a “bro” than I am, but while I used a lot of my own experiences in the book (I was called by the Todd McGovern of ICE marketing once to go hijack a demo…Todd was completely correct in reading the warning signs), Damico isn’t actually me. I chose the name because it sounded like I had just slightly changed my own name. Damico was actually the name of my Father’s best friend in College. I called him Uncle Jack.
Through 2006 and 2008 I drafted the novel. I often feel good about a novel somewhere around the third draft. At least I did with this one. In 2008 I started shopping the manuscript around to agents. The reactions were generally positive. Many sent me form rejections, of course, but the ones who didn’t basically came down to a single criticism. The criticism matched the notes of pretty much every critique I received while drafting the book:
“Well I liked it, but no one else will.”
There is an very specific skill that any author must have, but many writers can’t develop. You must be absolutely, head over heels in love with whatever you’re working on, but ready to walk away from it at a moments notice. The main need for this skill is when you write a book, unless you’ve sold a sequel, you can’t just write the sequel. Also, I’ve found that if you do a draft of a book too soon after the last draft, you aren’t objective enough to see the flaws. You see what you had in your head, not what you put on the page. (The amount of time you need to leave a draft fallow probably has a lot to do with you as a writer. Also, I expect it shrinks with experience). I don’t know how many writing groups I’ve been in where a thirty year old writer was beating a dead horse he’d given birth to in high school.
So when you finish a draft, you have to be ready to put it completely aside and work on something else. When I’m writing a book, I spend the last two months plotting my next book. When you’re drafting, though, you have to be so passionate that you’re ready to work and rework the book until you have the best thing you can possibly write. When you’re shopping it you have to be completely passionate about what you’re selling, but the second the query is out, you have to suddenly be passionate about the project you’re actually working on. (Because you aren’t querying books you’re still writing, correct?)
But worst of all, you need to know when to walk away from a book. This book resonated with the readers (at least those who gave me notes). But in the eyes of the business people, it was unsaleable. It didn’t matter whether they were correct or not. Writing is a business and the businessman in me saw the writing on the wall, as it were.
So in 2008 and walked away from Death by Cliché.
[originally posted at http://www.robertjdefendi.com/main/117]
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