We Are Dealers
Not metaphorically. Literally.
We are trying to re-create an emotional experience—at the cellular level—aided by the selective application of endorphins.
When people fall in love, their brain produces chemicals (dopamine, among others) which contribute to the magical feeling of “finding your soul mate.”
When people are thrilled/scared/excited, the brain produces other chemicals. (Adrenaline, anyone?)
And when people are bonding, yup… more chemicals. (Oxytocin, primarily.)
These are the sorts of events that people like to re-live, especially from the safety and comfort of their favorite reading chair.
But simply writing, “They fell in love,” or “He was scared,” or “She felt a connection with her baby” doesn’t do it… doesn’t provide the high… doesn’t have the mojo… of the real thing.
We’ve talked before about the importance of craft when it comes to writing something that will have the impact of actual lived experience when someone reads it. This goes doubly so when it comes to writing about the ‘big event’ type situations described above.
And the funny thing is, it seems like the more we attempt to describe—at great length—the feeling we’re going for… the less it feels real to the reader. But when we show it, with the small, unique, personal events and details that smell of actual life... if done well… it can feel real to the reader.
Ideally, to the point where the reader’s subconscious can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, and actually produces the same chemicals it would produce were the reader actually experiencing the events IRL.
At that point--boom!—the reader feels as if they were falling in love or fighting off terrorists or rescuing a loved one. And then you have them. They’ve bought into your story on an emotional level, and at that point they’ll forgive pretty much anything (as long as it doesn't throw them out of the story) because you’re giving them the fix—the visceral kick in the heart—they’re craving.
There’s no faking it here. The work either does or does not give them the feeling, on a gut level, of the emotional experience you’ve incorporated into your work.
Like a chemical lie detector test.
In those instances where your work causes the needle to swing to the far right and the buzzers to buzz and the flashing lights to spell out TRUE!!!, there’s a chance you might develop a loyal fan base and perhaps even join the ranks of authors either beloved or reviled as bestsellers. You know who I’m talking about… those authors who some call amazing and some call hacks and some call brilliant and some call commercial… yet who, in all cases, have a loyal readership that’s willing to plunk down their hard-earned money every time a new book comes out from their favorite writer. Because, regardless of how ‘literary’ or ‘writerly’ these authors may or may not be, their work passes the only test that matters to their readers—it’s written in such a way that it convinces some part of the reader’s brain, on an emotional level, that what they’re experiencing is real.
Whatever we’re writing—whether upmarket fiction or poetry or romance or kidlit or literary non-fiction or a multi-book SF/F saga—we could do much worse than to attempt to write in a way that passes the same test.
Publishing as Job Application
So, what does it take to get published…?
Timely subject matter?
All of the above, in a unicorn-level confluence???
If you listen to some conventional wisdom, the odds are so far against you that you might as well give up.
But the ones saying that are making a critical mistake in their reasoning… they’re acting like all aspiring authors trying to get published are equal.
They’re not. Not even close.
Look at it like applying for a desirable, high-paying, computer-centric job in the tech sector. The sort of job that might get a hundred-plus applicants for a single position. If your background is as a short order cook and you have zero experience or aptitude regarding computers, then yes, the odds are pretty terrible. But if you have the education/experience/aptitude the position requires, the odds—while not perfect—are much more realistic. Especially if you’re willing to do the research to find a company that might be a good fit… and you’re not stuck on any single company, but are open to a number of them.
When you apply for one of the above positions, there’s typically a multi-step process. (Apply online via form; submit CV; follow-up email; follow-up phone call; HR interview (phone or zoom); technical interview (phone or zoom); lengthy in-person interview/lunch/meet-n-greet to assess if you’re a “good fit” for the team; job offer; salary negotiation; acceptance; hired!) Most of those early steps aren’t actually there to assess your exact aptitude for the specific job at hand… they’re really designed to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. And only then does the employer get down to the serious business of assessing the remaining candidates.
The same with publishing. If you have the writer’s equivalent of the “necessary education/experience/aptitude” (in other words, you can write - and communicate - with a modicum of passion, intellect, and skill) then the odds, while not perfect, are much more realistic.
So don’t worry about the hundreds of emails hitting your would-be agent’s inbox this week. They don’t matter—many of them are from short order cooks looking for a coding job. Just do what you can do to put yourself in the running as one of the “serious candidates,” and you’ll eventually connect with the right agent and editor.
Just like applying for a job. Take it a step at a time, making sure you meet the requirements for each step along the way.
We recently reported where a new agent posted on social that if you can get your stuff together to simply compose a normal, common sense, concise query, you’re automatically ahead of 90% of all querying writers.
Well, you’re a writer, so you can do that.
Then you have to query agents who actually represent works in the same field as yours.
Well, this is a fairly simple research project… you’re certainly smart enough to figure that one out.
Then you have to have a well-enough-written manuscript that makes an emotional connection with the reader. (Character/Voice and Craft, right?) Revision/beta/revision/beta/etc. are good steps here. (In other words, no matter how excited you get, don’t submit before it’s ready.)
When an agent asks for a partial or full and starts reading, they’re looking for reasons to put it down and get on to the next one. (Like everyone, they’re busy and overworked.) So don’t give them one! Especially early on. Really spend time crafting and re-crafting your first pages. (No info-dumps here. Start in scene, and stay in scene. Keep it moving, feeding any back-story in bite-sized pieces that don’t throw them out of the story.)
If/when they finish your ms, you want them to think about it after they’ve closed the file. So, again, take the time to make sure your ending resonates and somehow ties back—in an emotional way—to the thematic underpinnings of the story.
If they like all the above and think there’s something here, they’ll probably call you. (If so, treat it just like if you got a call-back from a place where you applied for work. No need to freak or fangirl… although we all get excited when this happens.) They like your work or they wouldn’t have called. They’re just looking to see if (a) the work is still available, and (b) you’re a normal-ish human being with normal-ish business behaviors. (i.e. a basic sanity check before going into business with you—this is the “meet-and-greet” part of it.) And this is definitely a two-way deal, so don’t be afraid to ask questions of your own. Everyone’s different, but for me, two important areas would be (1) communication style and frequency (I hate to be left in the dark for long periods) and (2) their industry contacts (gone are the days where a successful agent has to be in Midtown—though many still are and it sure doesn’t hurt—but it’s pretty important that they have working relationships with the sort of editors you’d like to be published by.)
And then, they may want to ask for revisions and/or do some other sort of editorial work on the ms before they start submitting. This is like an employer offering you a job, and then saying, “Oh, by the way, all new employees go through our orientation training before starting work.” And of course, the only smart move here is to say yes. (I mean, changes are never non-retractable, and on the off chance you hate their input you can always revert to the previous version.)
So now you’ve been “hired” for the initial position (agented author) and your agent is trying her very best to get you promoted to the next level (published author).
This process is pretty similar to the original “application process,” except now you have professional help from an expert. So listen to her and take her advice… she’s highly unlikely to steer you wrong—the overriding goal in her work life is to help her authors get the best deals possible, and she only gets paid when you get paid.
And when an editor is interested, all of the above will once again apply but by now you’re an old hand at the hiring process. (In other words: apply; communicate with those who seem interested; put forward the best version of your story and yourself. Be open to feedback, willing to revise, and easy to work with.)
If you do all the above—and you have a strong manuscript and a modest amount of business sense—you’re not one in a thousand looking for the gold ring. You’re one of a small group of qualified candidates, and with effort and persistence you’ll find someone who’s a good fit for you and your work.
Happy job hunting!
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.