Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Learn something from the Construction Industry by Guest blogger Phoenix Alexander, MFA, PhD

     Writing a publishable manuscript is akin to building a successful commercial building. Both require good, aesthetically pleasing or satisfying design, sound structure, and quality materials that are well crafted to create settings suitable for the people who will use them and attractive to those who visit. Both must be well planned—no rooms without doorways or stairways to nowhere, with utilities conveniently placed. Signage, lighting and transit patterns must be clear enough to help folks get where they are going without stumbling. And both need inspectors to ensure everything is in place before they are ready to present to the market.
Too often writers let the analogy stop there. Writing a manuscript and "hoping for the best"—not knowing the intended readership or a way of getting it to market—is like a real estate developer building a commercial building without having leases signed and tenants ready to move in. Both are costly mistakes. When they finally find agents willing to represent them, they will be at the mercy of some pretty unattractive deals just to move a piece of property that has cost them to create.
You’ve heard the phrase “learn the craft” and assumed it meant learning the mechanics of writing—like the trade work on our commercial building. But successful writers who are more than “one-hit wonders”—the Micheners and the Pattersons—think more like the building’s developers. Before they build, successful developers study the neighborhood, learn which tenants will attract the widest range of visitors and bring in the most revenue, learn who the agents are who specialize in those tenants, keep tabs on the hottest architects, maybe assemble a focus group to review the design, and learn where to get the best tradesmen at the best cost, all ahead of time. They read trade magazines, network, and regularly update voluminous address books, so that by the time they conceive the next project, they know whom to approach for money or talent and what their “hot buttons” are.
     Most importantly, while developers may favor certain projects over others, THEY DO NOT CONFUSE THEM WITH THEIR CHILDREN. If inspections indicate needed changes in the project, they sign the change orders. In short, they deal with it as a business.
     I’m assuming here that you actually want to make money with your writing. If you’re a traditional type and don’t mind waiting a long time—a year or so in many cases—to see yourself in print, camp out in the library and check out the annual Writer’s Market series, which will tell you who is buying and publishing what, what their requirements are, and how much and when they pay—in short, how “the deal” is structured. Understand that payment upon publication is typical for magazines, and since it may take a magazine publisher three or four months to evaluate your work as a first-timer and another six after acceptance before the work hits the news stands, it can be a long time before you see any money from it.
     For books, the situation is worse, especially if you don’t have an agent. Sorry. The Writer’s Market series also includes a Guide to Literary Agents, and read all instructions carefully. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BANG A SQUARE PEG INTO A ROUND HOLE. IT ONLY "PISSES OFF" THE HOLE.
     If you’re more adventurous, consider exploring alternative routes to publication, especially when you’re starting out—blogging, self-publishing, print-on-demand, graphic novels, even distributing stories by cell phone. Check out online newsletters (such as Your Publishing Poynters Newsletter, a freebie) to keep up with changes in the industry. In short, do your homework, and don’t be taken by surprise. Know that you WILL make mistakes, you WILL fail, and you WILL be taken advantage of at some point by someone. It’s part of the learning process. Just don’t let it shut you down.


  1. Very sound advice, well constructed piece.

  2. Anonymous8:26 AM

    I enjoyed and appreciated this analogy article very much. Having a background in construction and owning my own building company in the past I have often drawn many of the same parallels. Good job here.

    Hey Peggy, stop in at Free Spirit - I tagged you with a literary query (smile).


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