A Little Help Here…?
I was listening to a writing podcast recently and someone was complaining that what he was doing “wasn’t working” (meaning he wasn’t getting published). Which is something we can all relate to at one point or another. Except this guy’s frustration was largely centered around the fact that he was doing everything “right” from a marketing standpoint—following all the latest trends/advice/buzz—and it still wasn’t working. More out of sympathy than anything else, I found myself saying to my phone, “Dude… if you really want to get published, you should try caring more about writing than publishing.”
This is not me being snarky or flip, or saying I have all the answers. (Are you kidding?) It’s simply me giving my best quick-hit advice based on observing the creation and acquisition of multiple books from multiple authors over multiple years…
Yes, there are a lot of formulaic manuals about how to write a novel. And maybe even more about how to get published. And even more “get rich quick” infomercials online about how to “be a successful author.” And blogs and vlogs and podcasts and videos and social posts galore about all of the above, each touting the latest FOMO-driven tips about what agents and editors want. We’ve discussed this before, here and here.*
[*TL;DR: (a) Most plot construction formulas come from screenplay writing. While there are some useful concepts there, a novel is a somewhat different beast. (b) Writing to trends is problematic for many reasons. If you start writing to a trend today and the writing, revising, polishing, querying, submission, acquisition, editing, and publishing processes all go without a hitch (ha!), your book will grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble in three years at best. By which time the universe may have moved on. (c) If the authors of those “Seven Easy Steps to Writing a Bestseller” e-books actually had the formula to writing a bestseller, they would probably be spending their time actually, um… writing bestsellers. (d) Almost all of the above “advice” assumes editors are just looking for a re-hash of whatever’s currently selling, like car salesmen or something, which is simply a false narrative. The reality with most editors at most imprints is something completely different. More on this later.]
And yet… even though the interwebs are abuzz with this stuff, no one I know who’s been published has followed anything remotely like the sort of trendy advice described above. And shoring this up is another observation, made by virtually every editor I’ve heard speak on the subject: The work which resonates best with readers is almost always the work which means the most to the writer.
Because, at best, what we do as writers is try and translate what’s in our heads into the heads of our readers. And if all that’s in your head is, “I hope I’ve found something trendy enough that someone’ll publish it,” that’s exactly what readers will get from it—that the motivation wasn’t passion but profit. And they’ll buy into your story about as much as they’ll buy the spiel from the used car salesman. (And of course, the first reader of any consequence will be an agent or editor, who are experts at detecting passion… or the lack thereof.)
So, submitted for your consideration: If you want to get published, try banishing all thoughts of publication from your mind while you’re conceiving, plotting, drafting, revising, and polishing your work. Do your best to write that which matters to you, which you have passion for, and which might even scare you a little. And don’t stop until it’s the best it can be. Because doing that gives you the greatest chance of reaching someone else… including an agent or editor.
Because… what if… just maybe… most agents and editors aren’t looking for someone who can replicate the flavor-of-the-month? What if they’re actually looking for writers who create well-crafted, interesting, emotionally engaging stories? Because maybe they know that’s largely what readers want to read… stories that get to some real truths about the human condition, about how we live, or maybe about how we should live?
We could do worse than attempt to create such a story.
And only then—when your heart is fully on the page and the story is crafted to the very best of your abilities—should you turn your complete attention to the process of finding an agent or editor who may respond to the story with as much emotion as you put into it.
But until then, the less you think about publishing, the more likely you are to craft a story someone will want to publish.
Ironic, isn’t it?
12/11/2020 02:25:27 pm
Great article, Mark! I have to be honest--five years ago, I would have argued with you on this point (after writing stories that came from my heart and getting feedback like: "It's just too *unique* for main-stream publishing, especially for a debut novel." I spent years trying to "crack the code" on conceiving the most marketable book ideas, only to then hear those projects described as BLAND. (Talk about catch-22!)
12/11/2020 04:55:45 pm
Thanks for the kind words, Copeland –
12/15/2020 08:09:59 pm
Thank you for the kind words, as well!
12/16/2020 08:02:21 pm
Thanks. I’d agree that if the author was invested in the work AND the work also resonated with the reader, that’s a great place to start. But as all writers and readers are a study of one, you can drive yourself crazy trying to game-out the specifics that lead to success. (Even the concept of “success” is pretty slippery; is it sales… good reviews… awards…? Or maybe feeling like you’ve created something special, something you’re truly proud of?) I don’t know much, but I know this: if our definition of “success” depends primarily on the actions of others, we may be in for a frustrating experience. But the good news is, the one thing we have total control over is the writing itself… the story… the actual words on the page. That’s all us.
12/18/2020 02:19:14 pm
Agreed! And, to your point, developing that riveting suspense comes from focusing on the story, characters, process, etc., rather than the external metrics for "success": marketability, trend-alignment, brand (my least favorite five-letter word), etc.
12/19/2020 10:38:55 am
Yes! IMO (and all this is just my opinion, of course) you can never go wrong focusing on Story, and everything that stems from that… character, setting, plot, etc. And yeah, it seems like generally the people who focus on all the buzz words – platform, brand, trends, market, etc. – either don’t get the primary result they want (a book that they – and others – actually care about) OR the secondary result they want (successful publication).
12/19/2020 08:03:28 pm
So true! Here's to building from the ground up!
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