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?
Many of us have certain things we like to do while writing, or maybe it’s a certain place or a favorite sweater or certain music or snacking on certain foods or… (Personally, I can’t write without some sort of beverage—usually caffeinated—sitting next to me.)
I suppose you could make the case that a writer should be able to write anywhere, at any time, while eating/drinking anything… or nothing, and while listening to anything… or nothing, and while wearing…. you get the point.
I humbly disagree. Or at least, I don’t think the best way to approach an act of creativity is to force it under unfamiliar circumstances.
I have a theory that humans enjoy having certain things or conditions around them while doing creative work because these familiar things—these rituals—prepare the mind for whatever comes next. They serve as reminders… they say to the brain, it’s time to write (or paint, or exercise, or eat, or sleep, etc.). Or maybe they simply give us the message, This is a safe place… it’s okay to relax. Like a child having their favorite stuffed animal when going to bed.
Or maybe just having the familiar is good because it’s, well… familiar*.
[*My wife used to have a watch which—for some inexplicable reason—always started beeping at 8:00 a.m. Even with the alarm mode off. Every time it happened, we’d look at each other and laugh. “It must be eight o’clock!” She finally replaced it… and immediately missed the friendly little “enjoy your morning!” reminder. So instead of getting used to a correctly functioning watch, she set her new watch to alarm each morning at 8:00. Just this morning, we were most of the way through our weekend long run and feeling a bit pooped, when it went off. We both laughed and said, “Must be eight o’clock!” and got a little lift from the friendly reminder. I mean, why wouldn’t you want that?]
So if there are certain things that make you feel creative or mindful or relaxed or just plain happy… don’t be afraid to incorporate them into your writing routine, regardless of the location or circumstances. We might have to get a little creative or be a little flexible, but there’s usually a way to make it work.
Example: my favorite thing to listen to when I write is… nothing at all. Not that I don’t love music. Actually it’s the opposite problem—I get involved in the music to the point of distraction. Same with nearby conversation… I find myself actively listening (as writers do), trying to make sense of it… trying to fit it into some sort of story line. But sometimes I like to leave the confines of the quiet office and venture out among the rest of the human race. Like at, say, a nearby coffee shop. So I bring my silence with me… in the form of earplugs. It really helps with concentration to be able to block out most of the outside noise.
(Some people use earbuds and leave them unplugged, which both blocks some sound and gives the impression you probably don’t want to be interrupted. And of course, if you can’t write without your death metal blazing away, crank it up and crank out those words!)
I also like those coffee shop paper cups, and I used to take them home and drink coffee in them during writing sessions until they fell apart (usually within a few days). I finally broke down and bought the reusable plastic version. So now—assuming I don’t come too far out of my writing-induced trance and actually look around the room—I can sort of maintain that coffee shop vibe when I’m chained to my office desk*.
[*Speaking of coffee, my wife isn’t the coffee hound I am, but I’ll occasionally make her what I call a “sidewalk latte” as a mid-day pick-me-up. Just a really small straight latte, maybe with a biscuit. The first time I did it I put a tiny spoon next to the small cup just for fun—like at a sidewalk café—even though she doesn’t take sugar. But from then on, I have to include that demitasse spoon. Because it gives her a certain vibe. Which I guess is the whole point of this post…]
So whatever it is that gives you that “I’m in my comfy place, ready to create” vibe, I encourage you to lean into it. Being creative is hard enough (especially this year) and anything we can do to help send an engraved invitation to the muse is definitely worth doing.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.