[Haha! I lied to you, as writers do. This is not a tutorial on how to write a query. The floor of the internet is absolutely littered with them. This is a little story about how to successfully land an agent who’s a good fit for you and your work. Which actually has very little to do with your query.]
You are a produce seller, with a stall at the farmer’s market. And a sign, describing your wares. You don’t have a wide variety of products. Probably one. Maybe two. Rarely three. In other words it’s all about quality, not quantity.
An agent is a shopper, going to market with a list. And they also have some sort of sign… maybe a fluorescent sandwich board, maybe just some words scrawled on the back of their t-shirt with a faded purple sharpie. But they all have a sign somewhere, if you look for it. You can read—find it and read it.
Let’s assume they’re looking for peaches. Specifically, peaches that remind them of a warm summer’s evening when they were a kid, hanging on the street corner with other kids and eating farm-fresh peaches with the juice running down their chin. Those kinds of peaches.
Not canned peaches drowning in high fructose corn syrup.
First off, if your sign says “Strawberries!” they’re likely to pass on by, even if your strawberries are exceptional. (Especially if they’re carrying a sign that says “No berries!” and you still try to talk them into your strawberries. Odds of success here are rapidly approaching zero, right?)
However, if your stall has a sign in front saying “Peaches for sale,” they’re very likely to stop and at least take a look. If your sign says “Fresh peaches for sale,” I suppose they might be even more inclined to stop, and if it says “Ripe, juicy, farm-fresh peaches for sale,” they’re almost certainly going to stop.
But peaches are expensive and they only have room for a few of them at the moment, so guess what? They aren’t going to think, “That’s a really well-written sign—I’m just going to buy those peaches.” Are you kidding? They’re going to try a sample.
And at that point, everything depends on that sample. Everything.
You can tell them, “These are the best, juiciest, freshest peaches in the whole market,” and it won’t make one damn bit of difference if they take a bite and disagree. You can talk about your peach-growing degree or the fact that you won the peach pie contest in eighth grade or that all your friends absolutely love your peaches and… Yup. They don’t care. If the sample is less than scrumptious in their opinion, adiós.
But if your little stall has a simple sign that says “Peaches,” and you say, “I see you’re looking for fresh peaches… here’s a sample of mine” and they take a bite and the juice runs down their chin and they’re suddenly transported back to being twelve years old on the street corner on a warm August night, guess what? They’re going to buy a bag and see if the rest are the same. (They will be, if you take your peach-growing seriously.) And once they realize your sweet little sample was telling the truth about your peaches, they’re going to want to be in business with you, helping you sell your peaches all over the world.
You see a lot of posts on social these days from people spending a lot of time and energy trying to put together a pitch and/or query agents and/or land an editor & get a book deal, and a lot of words around how hard this all is*.
[*Fair enough. It is hard, no doubt. But to put some reality around this perception, (a) I heard publishing guru Jane Friedman say on a podcast just this morning that there are more books being acquired today than ever before, and (b) it has always been hard—my wife had ten years of rejection over the course of three or four novels, and pretty much every published author I know (including yours truly) has a not-dissimilar story. So don’t lose sight of this amidst the current pub-doom scrolling.]
But also, you see a lot of musing on whether or not it’s “worth it,” and whether or not they should keep doing it.
On one level, the whole question is a self-correcting issue. I mean, if you want to do it, you’ll do it. If you don’t, you won’t.
But this is simplistic, and avoids the real issue here: What is it you actually want to do? Not as a stepping stone, but as a terminal objective?
Get an agent?
Land an editor?
Get a book deal?
Sell a bunch of books?
Win a big award?
All those things largely depend on the decisions and tastes of someone else.
Now, hypothetically, what if your primary goal was dependent on only you… what if your primary goal was simply to write the very best book you are capable of writing? Period. Not comma.
What would you end up with? There are no guarantees of course, but if you really put your heart and mind to the above goal, there’s a reasonable chance you’d end up with… the very best book you are capable of writing.
There are also no guarantees this would get you an agent and an editor and a published book. But if you were to get those things at some point, which factor would probably be more important… starting with a clever pitch, or starting with the very best book you are capable of writing?
Not that your query doesn’t matter. Of course it does—you have to have that in place to get them to read your manuscript, so you obviously want to make sure it does its job. But even the best query in the world won’t make them sign a mediocre manuscript.
One thing agents and editors say over and over: it needs to be good enough for them to “fall in love with it.” These words mean different things to different people, but one thing we can be fairly certain of—once you get their attention, everything else falls away and it’s all about the writing.
The perfect pitch, the carefully curated mood board, the well-researched comps… they can’t help you at this point. They’re like an Uber driver who’s taken you to a job interview. They’ve done their job, and now it’s all down to the actual words on the page. Once the agent or editor starts reading your pages, all they care about is… does this have “it”?
At this point, what you really want them to have in their hands is (wait for it…) the very best book you are capable of writing.
And in my humble opinion, the way you get that is to focus on that—rather than the whole marketing aspect—until you’ve written and revised and edited and polished your manuscript (and probably beta/rev/beta/rev… and more polish) to the point where it represents the best work you can currently do.
Even then, your agent (probably) and your editor (absolutely) will have multiple suggestions to make it even stronger. But they need to see the potential in your writing before you’ll ever get to that stage.
And you can give that to them, by giving your writing the best chance to succeed.
In light of all this, the “should I quit?” question doesn’t even come up. Quit writing? Why would you quit something you love, something you’re driven to do, something that costs nothing to do, something that no one is stopping you from doing?
I can’t imagine that.
Not if the goal is to write the best you can.
But if the goal is something second-hand, then maybe so. Because when it comes to motivation, intrinsic beats extrinsic every time, hands down.
In my admittedly-finite data collection on this, the ones who want to write… who need to write… are the ones with the best chance of getting published. Because they’re more likely to be doing the thing that editors want… they’re putting something on the page that means something to them… and thus it’s more likely to mean something to the reader.
To put it in mathematical terms:
The more you want Z, the less likely you are to get it (because you’re distracted from what it really takes to get it).
But the more you want X and Y (the precursors to Z, namely: a burning desire to put words on the page and tell your story, and a long-term dedication to the craft of writing) the more likely you are to wake up and find Z pounding on your front door.
Funny, isn’t it?
Humans have built-in biases for—and against—certain things:
1. We’re biased toward methods practiced by “successful” people, even if the methods have no actual bearing on their success. (Survivorship bias.)
2. We’re also biased toward methods that agree with ideas we already hold. (Confirmation bias.)
3. We’re biased toward what everyone else seems to be doing, whether or not it it’s actually working. (Fear of missing out).
4. And if presented with two methods, we’re naturally biased toward the one requiring less work on our part. Even if the effort-based methodology has better logic behind it. Because humans. (Least-effort bias.)
Any time you see one of those “Seven Secrets to blah blah blah…” ads, they’re counting on a mixture of Survivorship Bias and FOMO to get you to pull the trigger. They want you to think, Hey, there are secrets, and those successful people are willing to tell them to me! And if not to me, then to someone else!
As we’ve discussed before, the one commonality most successful creators seem to share is persistence. And all that implies. (Not just “hanging in there” and remaining static for months and years. But persisting via constantly improving our craft, our creativity, and our knowledge of the business. Working harder and smarter.)
I see people asking successful authors some variation of these questions almost daily: What are your secrets? What did you do to become a successful author? What steps should I take?
So here it is: The big secret is… the words. The words on the page. It’s all about the words, and very little else.
Want proof? Consider the following: When the vast majority of those author first got signed, the only thing the acquiring editors knew about them were the words they had put on the pages now in front of those editors. The words that made that particular submission—out of hundreds—stand out to the point where the editor said “Yes!” That’s all. Just the words.
Of course things outside our control—like luck and timing—also come into play, but even when we take that into account, we still have to have words on the page. Words that move, that connect, that are unique, that will make someone lean more toward “yes” than “no.” (And there are things we can do to increase our “luck,” as discussed here.)
And the great good news is, those words are totally within our control! So much about the publishing industry is beyond us, and I’ll be the first to admit this can make being an author stressful. But when it all gets a bit much, I remember that the one thing I have absolute control over is the writing… and I tear myself away from the vapid vociferousness of social media and refocus on the writing of my next work-in-progress. The words.
I see aspiring writers on social discussing the vagaries of publishing and having long threads about how to game the system to combat the horrible practices someone’s mentioned upthread. And the funniest/saddest part is, the majority of the things they’re all worried about (a major publisher totally changing your manuscript and publishing it without your buy-in, for example*) have zero relation to the reality of publishing.
[*Seriously. Saw this one on Twitter again, just this morning. Wow.]
So not only are you not getting good answers to the issues within publishing with your pub-doom scrolling, you’re not even getting the straight scoop about what those issues actually are.
It’s the same thing with trying to discern the exact steps an author took to get where they currently are. You can devote as much of your writing time as you want trying to learn the tiniest details of some successful writer’s path… but it won’t really help. You’d be way better off reading their work and trying to discern why it “works,” to the degree you think it does. Because everyone’s path is different, the only real commonality (besides perseverance, of course) being this: They eventually got a sample of their well-crafted, emotionally resonant writing in front of an editor who was looking for what they were offering.
That’s the path, right there.
So maybe we should spend, say, ninety percent of our writing time trying to figure out how to write emotionally connecting, well-crafted work. (And maybe a little of the remaining ten percent on getting it in front of the right agent/editor/reader.)
Instead of letting our survivorship bias tell us we should write using the same methods those authors did, to the same daily schedule, with the same crumpets between chapters. That’s the whole fallacy of survivorship bias—it looks at winners after the fact and then declares, “These easily measured differences are what makes them winners!” When the real reasons they’re winners are much more intangible and less easily measured. (Are there any easily-applied metrics for a piece of writing being “emotionally connecting and well-crafted”…? Not to my knowledge.)
Another oft-quoted axiom—“Do the writing, then send it out into the universe!”—was appealing as hell to me, for years. Because I really enjoyed the initial drafting. And because I didn’t really enjoy revising. And because one of my early writing heroes once said something similar. And—especially—because I was lazy. All of which added up to me pointing at this advice and telling myself, “See? I’m doing the right thing!” But the reality, of course, was that me sending out my early drafts (drafts which had been “edited”—scrubbed for SPG errors and obvious mistakes and continuity issues, but no real story-level revising) rarely led to the results I wanted. My biases at play here (“least effort” and “confirmation”) were biting me in the butt, and it wasn’t until I realized the real value of revision that things started to open up a little. (I still remind myself, “Hard right over easy wrong,” during the writing/revising/re-writing/polishing of every book-length project I do, lest I backslide…)
So, biases be gone!
It’s all about the words.
We’ve all heard the fable of the dry branch breaking while the supple limb flexes and comes back stronger than ever. Nowhere is this more apt than in working with publishers and their creative staff.
Recently I heard someone talking to his friends about his newly-finished book manuscript. Someone asked, “So when’s it coming out?” and the writer replied, “As soon as I find a publisher that won’t make me change anything!” I was there as a friend-of-a-friend so I didn’t say a word, but what I thought was, So… never, then?
Because that’s what publishers do! I don’t mean they alter the meaning of your project or make changes without your approval or anything even remotely nefarious. What they do do is ensure the books they publish are the best versions of those books possible, in the expert opinion of their creative staff (editors, editorial directors, art directors, copy editors, designers, editorial assistants, etc.) who—collectively speaking—have vast amounts of experience in publishing.
They earn this right via the simple fact that they’re paying for the production of your book, from your advance to the editor’s salary to the physical printing of the books (to say nothing of the publicity, sales, marketing, and distribution of said books to various venues all over the world… all of which contribute to your bottom line).
And beyond that, they’re generally pretty damn good at what they do. (Maybe better than you… definitely better than I.) And they generally know what works in any given market… again, maybe even better than we do.
Because of the above, they will actually offer editorial suggestions regarding manuscripts they plan on publishing. And if it becomes clear that you—as the author of said manuscript—aren’t amenable to considering feedback regarding your precious words, you suddenly become much less interesting to the editor in question. On the flip side, if they get the vibe that you’re a talented writer who also plays well with others, that’s a plus. Virtually every story of publishing success I know of involves taking (or at least seriously considering) editorial input at some point.
My very first professionally published piece began as a letter to the editor of a magazine. But the more I worked on it, the more it started to look like an article (at least in my naïve opinion at the time). So I went ahead and wrote the entire piece (around 3000 words, IIRC), complete with charts and graphs and photographs. (Which I developed in our little homemade darkroom, indicating what century this was.) Then I bundled up the whole thing and sent it off to the editor without a word of warning. (Query letter…? What’s that?)
His response upon receipt of my bundle of literary brilliance? “Sorry, but we’ve already done something like this.” Shit. “But…” he suggested, “how about writing an article about this, instead?” And the this he referred to was something I didn’t have a lot of interest in, to be honest. But hey, this door into publishing—even if it was the wrong door, leading somewhere I wasn’t really interested in going—was open. If only a crack. And it was the first door I’d seen up until then that wasn’t bolted tight. So I took his suggestion and wrote the piece (which he bought and published) and that was the beginning of my nonfiction career, leading to two hundred articles in various national publications as well as a couple of nonfiction books.
My first fiction sale went something like this: I submitted a science fiction story to the editor of my favorite SF magazine. (A breathtakingly brilliant story that was absolute perfection in every way, I might add.) His response was basically, “It’s an okay story, but we don’t need to see the protagonist break in and steal his boss’s prize fish. It’s obvious. Just have him leave, and then return with the fish.” Man, I hated that suggestion. Because I loved the fish stealing scene—so clever, so funny, so… superfluous. Yeah, once I removed it (something I never would have done on my own) I saw he was right. So I sent him the revised story, and he bought it and published it. Which was awesome. But even better, I learned an invaluable lesson—just because a scene is “good” (or well-written or funny or clever or whatever adjective strokes your writerly ego) doesn’t mean it helps the story. And the secondary lesson here was that this insight didn’t come from a writer, but an editor. Because that’s what editors do--they make stories better. Not by re-writing them, but by making suggestions to the writer as to how they might re-write them. (Understanding this difference is crucial, lest you fall prey to the goofy-yet-popular “Publishers will totally change your shit and publish it without your approval” myth.)
My wife’s first book deal came about when an editor read her manuscript and returned it with a note on the order of, “I like the voice but it’s way too long for the genre. If you cut it in half, I’ll look at it again.” A lot of writers would have thought, NFW am I ripping this thing apart for a major structural rewrite just because one person might ‘look at it again’…! That’s a ton of work with no commitment on the editor’s part, and my wife obviously thought the book was good as-is or she wouldn’t have shopped it. (No agent at this point.) Yet the door—while not exactly open—was at least unlocked. For now. (That’s another thing about rejections-with-suggestions: they come with an expiration date, which is exactly as long as the editor’s memory of her good feelings about your manuscript. Different for each editor, but generally weeks or months and not years.) So (with my loving support and encouragement… most of which consisted of me saying, Are you freaking crazy? Of course you should do this!) my wife buckled down and did the hard work of making the book significantly shorter while keeping the stuff that made it unique and wonderful in the first place. The editor eventually bought it—which started my wife’s career in children’s literature—and they currently have thirty-plus books together… and counting.
My first book deal (nonfiction) was also based on suggestions, but in this case it was the writer giving suggestions on the editing rather than the other way around. I’d written a fairly lengthy series of how-to articles for a magazine, and when the series was concluded my editor floated the idea of bundling them up into a book, basically re-printing the articles as they’d originally appeared in the pages of the magazine. I’d had similar thoughts, but I didn’t want it to be just a ‘collection of articles,’ so I suggested I write additional material to bridge each section and gen up additional photos and drawings (as well as change the 3-column magazine format of the text to a more “bookish” 2-column layout) which the editor was flexible enough to agree to. The end result was a coherent book the editor and I were both proud of—it became one of the better selling books the publisher had at that time—and I can’t help but think this might not have been the case had we just put out a quickie compilation.
With my first published book-length fiction (a YA novel), there was some editorial back-and-forth between me and the editor before I even got a contract. I recently heard someone opine that you should never do any revisions without a contract (and if your last name is Rowling or King, I might agree) but my thinking is if an established editor at a reputable house is willing to work with me on my manuscript, then I’m goofy not to. Her suggestions were very good—typically more about what to trim than what to write—and I took at least 80% of them. And I ended up with a contract and an advance and an agent and a book I’m proud of. None of which would have happened had I put my foot down in a show of authorial inflexibility.
And finally, with the novel I recently sold (actually, which my amazing agent recently sold, to a Big Five imprint), the editor had some questions before she made an offer. She let it be known that she was interested in the manuscript—loved the main character and his voice—but she needed answers first regarding how I might address certain things. I felt she was basically saying, "This is roughly what I think it needs. If you aren't up for doing the work, let me know before we tie the knot." And I totally understood that viewpoint, and I really appreciated her forthrightness. (See this post on how “a willingness to revise” is one of the main things an editor looks for in an author.) Then I proceeded to reply to her with a couple thousand words on how I might address her comments. And, well, here we are—the book pubs this fall and I couldn’t be more excited.
And to be honest, I think my general willingness to roll up my sleeves and work with her was as germane to selling the manuscript as any specific revision ideas I came up with.
And… now that that manuscript is pretty well buttoned up, we’ve had a conversation about next steps. I said I had ideas in sub-genres A, B, and C, and she said she was more interested in books that fell under B than A or C. Fair enough. So I sent some pages of an idea that came under B, and she let me know what she liked and what she thought needed some tweaks. Again, I’m free to do what I want, but if I want to continue to work with her, the smart move would be to work in an area in which she’s interested and listen to her feedback. So that’s what I’m doing.
Begin to see a pattern here?
So… if you need a publisher that will put out exactly what you write, word-for-word, without suggesting any editorial changes, that’s easy. You just have the wrong P-word. You’re not looking for a publisher, you’re looking for a printer. There are a ton of them who’ll be happy to take your money and print up your draft exactly as-written. And there are lots of sites where you can “just press publish” and your words will be magically available to whoever wants to read them, exactly as you drafted them. And all of that’s perfectly fine.
But if you want to successfully work with a publisher—one who will pay you, as well as pay for the production, printing, publicity, sales, and marketing of your book—then a little creative give-and-take can go a long way. And will very likely make your book even stronger than it would have been on its own. After all, you and the publisher want the same things—for your book to be the best version of your story, and for it to find success, both artistically and commercially.
Don’t be so brittle you break. Sometimes there’s more strength in being agile.
This issue comes up a lot, framed in a lot of ways.
Essentially: “How do we manage chronology in our stories, vis-a-vis the narrative point-of-view?”*
First caveat: I’m no expert. In fact, there are no experts on this. (However, there are people who supposedly know all the “rules”—and have the paperwork to prove it—but in my experience you don’t want to take writing advice from them.) Because…
Second caveat: There are no rules. This is art, not science, right? Whatever works, works.
Third caveat: I can only tell you what works for me, and maybe a few other writers I know. You need to try things out and see what works for you. Your solution may be different than mine, which is wonderful.
[*For me, the only meaningful answer to this question is some version of: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader. That’s all that matters. All else is low-signal and high-noise.]
Let’s look at the most common example: managing flashbacks.
The very first issue to consider: Does the benefit of the flashback outweigh the cost of removing the reader from where she is and flinging her somewhere new, then waiting for her to get acclimated to the new place, then bringing her back to the present? That’s totally up to you, but overall I’d say there seems to be a tendency for newer writers to want to put flashbacks into their early pages because they think the most important thing is that the reader understands everything from the get-go. That’s not really the goal… the goal is to get the reader immersed in the character/scene to the point where they’re invested in the character and the story feels real to them. If you do that, they’ll follow you anywhere. (And of course they’ll expect you to catch them up a bit at a time as you go along, and you should hold up your end of the bargain and do just that, but not at the expense of throwing them out of the story by info-dumping or jerking them back and forth in time just so they have “all the facts.”)
In brief: Information is not nearly as important as interest.
But sooner or later—when the reader knows the character and the time/place in which they reside—you may need to jump back and show them something important that happened before the story started.
In the above sentence, the operative word is “show.” That’s why we use flashbacks… to show a scene instead of just telling us, Six months ago, X happened. If you can simply tell us that and it feels natural and doesn’t interrupt the flow (and we don’t need a high level of detail) then by all means, do that.
But otherwise, the goal of a flashback should be to make it feel like part of the story, not like a separate, non-story event. While still making us aware that it happened before the present story time.
One way to do this is to have the POV character say or think something that relates to previous events; have a scene break; set us clearly where—and when—the back-in-time scene happens. And then…
Then… if you’re going “by the rules,” you would use the past perfect tense to describe everything that happened in the past. (Ex: “I had done this, then she had done that, and then we’d decided to do this other thing…”) Which is 100% correct, except… (and feel free to insert f-bombs for emphasis as you read this) it doesn’t feel like story—it feels like someone telling you what happened. Which is in violation of the ‘how do we do it?’ answer, namely: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader.
So instead, consider tossing the rules and not doing the whole ‘past perfect tense’ thing. Instead, consider completing the three pre-flashback steps above, then starting the body of the flashback with one or two uses of past perfect tense, then segueing into regular past tense for the duration of the flashback scene (assuming the rest of the book is in past tense, of course, otherwise use whatever you’re using), then another mechanical scene break, then bring us back to the present with something (action, dialog) that takes up where the pre-flashback scene left off.
For an example, let’s make up a goofy little origin story which transitions present-past-present (as origin stories are wont to do)…
### ### ###
[story, story, story…]
…and as I crested the hill it occurred to me that riding a blazing unicycle from hell felt as natural to me as riding a bicycle did to most boys, but it sure wasn’t always that way…
I’d wanted a unicycle for as long as I could remember, but I’d never expected Krampus Himself to conjure me up the Flaming Wheel of Fire on Krampusnacht three years ago.
I woke early that morning—well before the sun—expecting the usual oranges and walnuts and such from Saint Nicholas, because I’d been “good.” (Well, except for that episode with Petra in her father’s barn, but we’re not talking about that.) But I guess that horned asshole knew all about it, because he showed up instead of Ol’ Nicky, and instead of treats he had a bundle of birch rods for whipping my bottom, along with a fierce grin... indicating he was going to enjoy said whipping rather more than I.
In a moment of terror-inspired brilliance I held up a finger, quietly reached behind the pantry curtain, and brought out a jug of my father’s favorite schnapps and a couple of stone mugs. “You can whip me and carry me off,” I offered, “or you can have a drink. Your choice, my good sir.”
Well, everyone knows schnapps is Krampus’ second-favorite thing, so pretty soon we were knocking 'em back like two old mates down to the public house.
“So, what do ya really want, my boy?” he rumbled.
Leaving that frighteningly possessive pronoun aside, visions of oranges and chocolates flew in one earhole and out the other. “Well, sir…”
“Drop that sir shit!” he boomed, half in his cups already.
I took a swig. “Well, Krampy… what I really want is a unicycle.”
“A unicycle???” I was certain he’d wake my parents, but you don’t just shush Krampus, now do you? I bobbed my head. He rubbed his hands. “But it’d have to be a… special sort of unicycle, wouldn’t ya think?” No, I did not think. But I just nodded again. What would you have done—argue with him, I s’pose?
He reached into his big black bag—I could just make out the mewling of some of the less-quick-on-their-feet village boys—then pulled out a feathered pinecone and flung it into the fireplace with such force that it cracked a brick. After the smoke cleared and he’d disappeared—precisely as my parents awoke—standing of its own accord in front of the hearth was my singular wish. Already alight.
As I barreled down the backside of the hill, I had to give the devil his due… that fiery rocket of a monocycle has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have fathomed back when he first gifted me—or cursed me—with it.
In fact, waiting for me at the bottom of the hill was…
[story, story, story…]
### ### ###
(1) POV thinks/says something related to the past;
(2) use a mechanical scene break of some kind;
(3) anchor the flashback early in the scene;
(4) maybe use a little past perfect—if at all—then;
(5) dump it and get back into your normal tense (which will feel way better to the reader), then;
(6) use another mechanical scene break, and finally;
(7) anchor us firmly back in the present with a familiar or expected action.
Or… use any other methodology of your choice.
I think the cardinal thing to keep in mind here is that a flashback should be a scene, and the sooner it feels like a scene and not an info-dumpy chunk of exposition, the smoother and more natural it’ll feel to the reader.
And, therefore, the lower the cost of diverting the reader from the present to the past and back again, which is all to the good.
This is an interesting one. And possibly subject to misinterpretation. So let me say right up front that—in my opinion—self-belief (or any other phrase describing how we view ourselves and our place in the world) is important, and can affect how we navigate the world. But not for some mystical reason.
In my view, this stuff works for reality-based reasons. Our brain is basically a machine that programs itself, constantly taking in whatever information is within grasp and using it to add to its programming. You can’t really stop the process, but you can help determine what you program it with. (This is similar to the “read good, write good / read bad, write bad” effect we discussed earlier, where what we put into the process helps determine what comes out. Or, as my dad used to say, “Garbage in, garbage out.”)
Critical to understanding this is grokking that parts of our brain literally can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction. (Here’s the easy proof: Have you ever been scared by a movie? Sure. And yet, in the middle of the film, if someone were to stop the projector and asked you, “How was this created, and is it real?” you’d answer, “Those are actors, on a sound stage, surrounded by a crew of technicians, being filmed as they say lines written by someone else. It’s complete fiction.” And yet… a good horror film can scare the crap out of you. Because that emotional-response part of our brain believes what gets fed into it, and responds accordingly. Without regard for the “truth or fiction” aspect of it… assuming it appears enough like truth to not throw us out of the story.)
So, on some level, parts of our brain tend to believe what we put in front of it. Which is why visualization is now an integral part of virtually every serious athlete’s training… if for no other reason than the pragmatic fact that it just works. Same for self-talk or affirmations or anything else of that nature.
Just recently I heard a best-selling author describe—in a podcast—her little informal writing group’s methodology. In brief: the writers (all novelists) bring a couple of pages from their WIP, they read them before the group, the group responds with positive feedback, and… that’s it.
No “Here’s what’s not working” or “Here’s what I would have done” or “Why did you do this?” or “Instead of doing that, why don’t you…” or critical commentary at all. After describing their method, she laughed and said, “I know it sounds silly, but it works.” It didn’t sound silly to me at all… it sounded brilliant. These aren’t beginning writing students (in need of the fundamentals), these are experienced novelists. Who have figured out that the most pragmatically useful thing to them—in the middle of drafting a novel—is simply holding the belief that they’re doing good work. Period.
Sure, there’s always a time and place for looking at things with a critical eye. But in the middle of the slog, thinking that all this work is worthwhile… that it’s adding up to something good and special and valuable… is critical. Otherwise you’ll likely never finish. Because it’s hard to do good work if you don’t believe that you’re capable of doing good work.
And if you don’t think you can do it… you probably can’t. Because you’ve convinced that part of your brain where emotional decisions are made that you can’t do it.
But what if we did the opposite? What if we fostered an emotional belief, deep inside, that we were capable of good work, if only we applied ourselves to the point of completion? The odds of us finishing at all—let alone producing something good—just went up exponentially!
It’s not some woo-woo mystical thing. Yes, you still have to have the goods (and/or do the hard work of turning the not-so-goods into the goods, which is how virtually all writers do it). But that can come after you’ve finished the initial marathon of getting those 100,000 words onto the page. In the middle of the march, you need to believe that you can do it.
When people talk themselves down, I sometimes say, “Be careful what you say, because someone’s listening… you.”
There’s a fascinating little story around the shirt in the photo (which was given to me back when my first novel was published). I’ll let you deduce your own version of it (and put it in the comments if you like) because (a) you’re a writer and that’s what writers do, and (b) I don’t want the synchronicity of it to detract from the overall message…
To wit: How you think about yourself—and your work—matters.
Don’t stop believing!
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.
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!
As part of our continuing deep dive into different areas of novel writing, we’re taking a look at a specific aspect of point-of-view, namely when to—or maybe more important, when not to—switch between POV characters.
At first glance the whole discussion might seem silly. I mean, this is art and there are no rules, so we—as writers—can switch between characters whenever we want, right?
The issue—as always—is that the writer knows more (generally much more) about the story at any given place within the text than the reader does. And unless we’re purposely being vague for specific effect (which can certainly be valid at times), we generally want readers to feel at least somewhat grounded regarding where we are and in whose head we’re residing.
And more important, how they feel about said character at any given time.
We’ve discussed the importance of reader connection—especially with your main character(s)—and it can hurt the emotional bond we wish to build between reader and character to jump from character to character without some sort of framework or boundary between these transitions.
To move from one POV character to another without following these conventions is sometimes referred to as “head hopping.” (Generally in a less-than-complimentary way.) A typical case might be where the author moves from one person’s POV to another… within the same scene.
Although it can happen in 1st or 3rd person, past or present tense, it seems most common in close 3rd. We’re in one character’s head, then bang, we’re in another’s. With no scene break. When this happens, the author is actually switching (either intentionally or unintentionally) from close 3rd to omni 3rd. Oops! (If unintentional, which it generally seems to be.)
With 1st person, of course, it can only really happen with multiple POV characters. This can be even more egregious than with 3rd person, because in 1st the narrator doesn’t name the POV character (because they’re one and the same). There’s no, “Hi, this is Fred talking to you now. So as I was saying…” Many authors writing in 1st with multiple POV characters use chapter headings with the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter, just to keep the reader grounded as to who’s head we’re currently in.
Because this is important.
Not the heading, but the understanding of which car we’re currently driving. We want (strike that—we need) the reader to have understanding/empathy/connection with the POV character, and that clearly can’t happen until the reader is comfortably seated behind the wheel.
There’s something I call Cost of Transition. It implies that with any instance of transitioning from one time to another, one setting to another, one character to another, there will be a cost in reader attention. It’s in our best interest to keep this cost as low as possible for the reader, while still transporting them to another location, scene, day, or character. (If the cost is deemed too high—especially after a few of these in a row—this is where the reader is likely to put the book down. For an hour, for a day… or maybe forever.)
The cost goes up, not down, if the transition comes at an unexpected place… a place where the reader was thinking, “Hmm… I like it here. I’m interested in this place. I want to stay here for a while…” Then, just when the reader thought they were going to stay there until the end of the chapter… wham. You yank the rug out and throw them into another character… where they have to go through the whole ‘getting comfortable in this new place’ routine again.
This is generally not a good thing. Unless handled with skill, it can feel clunky… jerky… uncertain and uneven… like there’s a student driver piloting the bus.
Part of the reason is that it can feel more like telling than showing. We’ve probably all seen scenes in a manuscript similar to this:
Dick looked at Jane and thought, She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen… I bet there’s no way she’d ever go out with me.
Jane tried to guess what was going through Dick’s mind, and wondered, Hmm… is he ever going to ask me out?
Pretty tell-y, right? Instead of showing us, via actions and mood and dialog, etc. This sort of character-hopping within the same scene can come off as the polar opposite of “Paint a nuanced picture where we discern the dynamics of the relationship from dialog, tone, body language, etc.”
Maybe one of the reasons it can feel unnatural and clunky is that in real life, we are always in the head of the same person, and the only interior monologue we ever get is our own. So… maybe we’re willing to visit more than one person’s interiority, but only if we get closure before moving on to the next. (Sort of a “literary serial monogamy,” I guess…)
Regardless, I’d generally say: Consider not head hopping unless you have a very good reason (and the chops to actually pull it off without the downsides described above) because—as mentioned—there’s a cost to it. I’m sure some really talented and successful authors have used it to good effect, but when I see it in the wild, it frequently comes across as the opposite.
But as always, you do you.
In the ongoing quest for improvement (school never really ends, does it?) I’ve been doing a deep dive into different aspects of writing fiction. Lately I’ve been fellowshipping with the concept of voice.
We hear it all the time… Voice is one of those things that really matters when it comes to a book succeeding (whether that’s getting an agent, getting an editor, getting published, getting good reviews, selling well, or—most important—getting love and recommendations from engaged readers).
In fact, “voicey” has become the publishing adjective of the year. Maybe of the decade.
(Followed by “pacey,” which we’ll talk about in a later post. Not to be confused with “plotty.”)
Voice… Before we can begin to talk about how to develop it or implement it or improve it, we need to consider something that seems to be occasionally misunderstood: what is it?
And this is where things can get confusing, because there are a couple different ways people talk about voice, and conflating these can really hurt reader engagement. (Which is ironic, as engagement is the primary goal of voice.)
These different aspects actually exist on a continuum, but for the moment let’s call them “authorial voice” and “character voice.” The first helps define who you (the writer) are, as a person. The second adds depth to who the character is, as a person.
In the starkest example, think of a nonfiction how-to book. (i.e. a book that has nothing in the way of characters, inner monolog, or dialog). This book is entirely in the author’s voice. If you’re the writer, you decide the tone(s) you want to set (formal and scholarly; casual and matter-of-factly; humorous and personable; etc.) and how far you may wish to range between them, then you get to work.
At the other end of the scale, think of a novel written in first person POV. Except for dialog from secondary characters and the like, the book is written entirely in the character’s voice. Not yours. (This is critical—we’ll revisit in a minute.)
An in-between case, of course, is third person POV. And even this is on a continuum, with ‘omniscient third’ being mostly the author’s voice, and ‘close third’ being in (or near) the character’s head at times. Overall, think of this as “narrative voice.”
A couple things to keep in mind…
When writing in third person (esp. close 3rd), we need to be aware of the difference between the narrative voice and the character’s voice. The latter comes to the front when we see/hear the character’s interior monolog, but also—not quite as obvious—when we’re looking at the world around them through their eyes, yet their views are being transported to us via the narration. It can be a nuanced balance, more distant than the constant “I, I, I” of in-the-head first person, yet clearly closer than 3rd omni or non-fiction narrative.
The other thing to keep in mind—and perhaps the main point here, as many of us working in fiction are working in 1st, especially those of us working in kidlit—has to do with writing from the direct point of view of someone who is not you. They may look like you… same age, gender, race, religion, etc. Or not. But regardless—if this is truly a work of fiction--they are not you.
So we should keep our voice out of their mouth.
By getting out of our own heads and into theirs.
What “voice” primarily means—when used by agents and editors discussing fiction—is the character’s voice, as evidenced in their interior monolog. And of course, if written in 1st person, virtually the entire book—minus any dialog—is interior monolog. (Or narrative description/exposition by the viewpoint character, which is close enough to interior monolog for these purposes.)
So the entire book is in “voice.” But not your voice. Your character’s voice.
Which means we need to really know them. To the point where we’ve internalized their personality, so we can wear it like a comfortable old sweater when we sit down to write. I’m going to suggest that if we have to think, “Hmm… what might someone like my character say in this situation, and how might they say it?” then maybe we don’t yet know them well enough to be writing in their voice.
Have you ever read something featuring a young character who seems to have the intellect/education/experience of a thirty-something college graduate? This can happen when we conflate our voice with our character’s voice. (I’ve had writers ask if they should add more metaphors, etc., to their fiction in an effort to have a more “writerly voice.” This is art, not science, so I hate to give yes or no answers to these things. Plus it's subjective as hell. But generally, in terms of reader engagement, I would say probably not. It would take us further from our character… and our readers. Which is exactly the opposite effect we generally wish to have with fiction.)
One good mitigation strategy here is to ask ourselves (and others who are conversant on the topic), “Is this the way a 13-year-old would talk?” And more important, “Is this the way a 13-year-old would think?” Not how we might want them to talk and think and act (because one of the very worst things we can do is write fiction that’s either prescriptive or proscriptive, telling kids what to think and do… or not think and do). But how they might really think and act. Then spend some quality time with your characters until you’ve absorbed their personalities to the point where you no longer have to ask the question.
Having said that, we’re not looking for some sort of “Jane/Joe Average 13-Year-Old” here. Your characters are probably different in some regard… maybe a lot different. (Which generally makes for a more compelling story, regardless.) But even a complete genius of a 13-year-old is still a 13-year-old, and doesn’t have the perspective of someone who’s been walking the planet for an additional 20 or 30 or 40 years.
So… we want to create characters who feel real to us… so real that we actually care about them, and what happens to them. (This, of course, is the big fat secret to getting readers—including agents and editors—to care about them. And connection to your characters may be the most important factor in getting a positive response from gatekeepers and readers, along with sentence-level craft.) For a deeper dive into caring about your characters, see this.
And finally, “voicey” (when used as a complimentary adjective by agents/editors) means having a character with an interesting, unique, accessible voice… readily identifiable and engaging in some way (humorous, snarky, poetic, wryly observant, geekily sincere, etc.) such that their voice itself adds significantly to the enjoyment of—and engagement with—the work. (In short: Is it fun to spend time in your character’s head?)
And—along with everything above—it should feel real. All this is not necessarily as simple as placing your inciting incident 37% of the way through Act 1, but perhaps more likely to grab—and hold—the attention of the person at the other end of your manuscript.
As always, when discussing writing we need to remember that this is an art, not a science. So rule #1 here is: Do what works for you. Period.
Which means my thoughts on the matter are exactly that—just my thoughts. Not a prescription for you or anyone else. (IOW, I’m saying “This worked for me and some people I know, it might work for you,” as opposed to “This is the one true way!”)
So with that out of the way, the first thing to consider regarding betas (before even selecting them) is: Do I want to use beta readers? If you follow any writing groups on social it seems like using betas is widely considered an automatic must-do, but it's really more of a personal choice than a requirement—I know authors who use them and authors who don't.
Which sort of begs the question—what do we expect to get out of a beta reader?
Here’s what not to expect: someone who will read the book and tell you how to make the story stronger, better, tighter, more resonant. The person who can do that is a professional editor, and even then, expect to do most of the heavy lifting yourself once they shine a light on some areas where you might improve it.
A beta reader is exactly that… someone who can read the manuscript and tell you how they felt about it… as a reader. That’s it. They can tell you where something didn’t work for them. But not how to fix it. (That’s your job.)
I’ve heard the different levels of feedback described as symptom/diagnosis/cure. You might mention your symptoms to a non-medical-professional friend, but you probably wouldn’t depend on your friend providing a scientific diagnosis. And you probably wouldn’t take their advice regarding which meds to take w/o consulting a doctor first, either.
With a beta, you want them to tell you what didn’t work for them. But if you simply get “I didn’t like it,” that’s not much value unless you can dig a little deeper (without getting into the whole diagnosis/cure aspect). Try not to lead the witness, but attempt to at least get some generalities about why they didn’t like it. (“Too much dialog” is a far cry from “too violent,” right?) And if they can’t tell you in a short declarative sentence what they didn’t like about the scene in question, you need a different beta. (The two most common comments when friends/family read something--“I loved it” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea”—are equally lacking in constructive value.)
So the first realization is: the right beta (for your work) is going to take some work to find.
And the second realization: the wrong beta is worse than no beta.
Right off the top, they should be very conversant with the genre you’re working in or it’s just general advice with no deep connection to the work at hand.
Because what you’re looking for is: a representative member of the likely group of readers for your work… who can also clearly articulate their feelings about the manuscript in question.
An SF fan who doesn’t really grok what you’re trying to do is of little value to your emotionally-driven science fiction novel, even though he knows the genre. And a longtime reader who has no experience with young adult literature since “The Outsiders” probably isn’t going to provide actionable feedback on your contemporary YA novel, even though she’s highly literate outside the genre.
You need both qualities, although the “able to articulate their feelings about the manuscript” is probably the more important aspect.
And finally, they need to understand that a discouraged writer is a bad writer. Which is why you don’t want someone who will tell you ‘the unvarnished truth.’
First, there isn’t much objective truth in art. It’s subjective. It’s emotion. It’s opinion. (If you revise your work in a panic every time someone gives you a differing opinion of it, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining the steady authorial vision required to finish a cohesive work.)
Second, you want a little varnish. If your beta can’t find something motivating or validating or inspiring to say about your work, you have to wonder about their mindset, right? I mean, nowhere in the job description of a beta reader does it say: “Find and report every possible flaw you can discover within this piece of writing. Period.” People who look at reading a manuscript as this kind of challenge—and their name is legion—aren’t people you want looking at your early work, believe me.
Third, they should already have an affinity for the type of work in question*, or why have them read it? I mean, “a representative member of likely readers” sort of implies they like the genre. If someone says, “I just can’t get behind mysteries,” I might say, “That’s fine—read what you like.” But inside I’m also thinking, …but no freaking way am I letting you read my mystery!
[*Remember, the goal isn’t: “Let’s see what a random member of the public thinks of this manuscript.” Who cares? We want to know what a likely reader might think of it.]
All of which means, when you find an intelligent, genre-conversant, empathetic beta reader… treat them right! I’m talking ‘chocolates and wine’ right. Because they’re a rare and wonderful thing.
This came up in conversation with a good friend who wanted to read a draft of the book I’m currently putting the final touches on (and/or the one after that, which hasn’t been seen by an editor yet but is in pretty good shape).
My take on the issue is that I generally don’t want people* reading something that’s going to be a “real book,” because the final iteration is almost certainly the strongest, and people don’t usually want to read something twice.
[*Beta readers, which I use very sparingly, are a somewhat different issue.]
He and I had an interesting/informative discussion around this, and after trying to explain my thoughts, what I boiled it down to was this: No matter how hard you try or how well intentioned you are, you really can’t read the same book twice.
Not that you can’t read the same actual pages twice. To very good effect, even.
But… will it be the same story—to you, and to your reader-brain—the second time? With the same amount of resonance?
I’m going to posit that no, in some ways it may not be.
An obvious reason is the “aha! factor” will be largely missing. The big reveal, the who-dunnit, the shrewd turn of the screw, the unexpected reversal… none of these will have the impact they originally did upon the reader. Even if they forgot the details in the intervening months between reads, it’ll come flooding back as soon as they get one small bit of what should be foreshadowing (which becomes a full-on spoiler to someone who’s read the book before).
Also… the reader changes with the passage of time.
And… the story also changes in relation to contemporary norms.
And… in some way, the story changes the reader.
As writers, it’s important to realize that all of this really applies to our own work.
Which is why we want to choose carefully when it comes to betas. Not who the betas are (also an important topic we’ll dive into in another post) but when—in the story process—you involve them. Too late in the process (after everything is drafted and revised and re-written and polished and has one foot in the mail) and they almost can’t help you, except to say “I liked it,” or maybe “not my cup of tea.” Like asking for architectural input after the foundation is poured and the walls are up, right?
But there’s also a cost to bringing them in too early. Once they know the story—the surprises and plot twists—sure, they can comment on them. But when they read a more finalized iteration down the road, the work won’t have the same impact as the first time they read it. After a while—and after enough reads—a work seems to attain a certain inevitability about it, which makes it harder to imagine things being different than they already are.
One answer is to not bring them in until you feel the work is somewhat “readable,” as a whole, but not totally buttoned up. That way they can comment on how it works as a story. Realizing that their later reads will be more about the actual writing—including any new revs, of course—without as much information about how the story as a whole affected them. (Because they’ve already been inoculated against plot impact, as discussed.)
Another option is to use more than one beta, but only use each one once. Maybe get input from someone who’s good with story development early on and someone with more of a copy editor mindset for later versions, etc. (Really, this is a personal decision based on what you want from betas. Some writers want input regarding where the story should go, and others mostly just want to know if there were any sections that “didn’t work,” so they know where to focus revising.)
But the main thing to keep in mind—as a writer—is that this effect will impact your view of the book also. (For one thing, by the time it’s ready for primetime you’ll have been through it so many times that if you’re not careful, your brain will auto-correct any mistakes as you read.) But beyond that, when you know a story this well, you’ve built up a mental model of it that contains much more than is actually on the page. (Everything currently in the ms plus everything you’ve written then cut plus everything in your internal backstory plus everything you’ve ever thought about it.) It’s all there, in your mind… but it’s not all there on the page.
The nearly-impossible task is to read exactly what’s on the page and then make editorial decisions based only on that, ignoring all the other story-related stuff in your brain. Time away from the story can help here. As can relying on outside input for a more objective view. Which brings us full circle, to an awareness that because we can only read a story “for the first time” once, we should shepherd our early readers carefully.
Having said all this, I want to reinforce that re-reading a book is often really rewarding and valuable. (A worthy topic we’ll dig into later.) We have a librarian friend who has taught us the huge benefits of deep re-reading, and I have to say that yes, I really can get something new from each re-read of the same book.
But perhaps it’s not really the same book…
Or more to the point, perhaps I’m not the same reader…
There’s a belief floating out there in the wild that the thing that really matters when it comes to writing a book is… a great idea.
And the complement to that is: Once you have the ‘great idea,’ the hard part is done and you’re home free. I mean, to this very day you’ll see books and films where either a lost writer gets the “aha” moment of a great idea and everything is roses from then on, or maybe someone steals the brilliant idea and then of course they have a runaway bestseller from it. Because of course it’s all about the great idea.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a great idea is a good thing. But even if it’s one of those one-in-a-hundred ideas that actually sticks around for a while after popping into your head—to the point where it’s a potential story-starter—it’s just the very beginning of the job.
Because the idea is the easy part.
Because the idea is where the work starts, not ends.
Because a good idea without equally good execution isn’t worth the napkin it’s scrawled on.
Sort of like how thinking of a cool destination (Aha! I’ll go to Bora Bora!) isn’t the trip in itself… there’s all the planning and preparation and travel and then—once you’ve arrived—you still need to get out there and make the most of your time in the new location if you want to have an adventure worth remembering. Or how thinking of a college major (Aha! I’ll get a degree in computer engineering!) isn’t exactly the same as actually going to a university and doing the hard work of earning a degree.
The idea for a book is not the book.
Not even close.
In a workshop I gave, we were discussing this. I said, “So let’s think of a basic story idea. Maybe there’s a boy and a girl. Or any two people of your choosing. And maybe they annoy the hell out of each other, so they avoid each other. Then they get thrown together and they have to actually, like, work together… and talk to each other… and spend time with each other. And both of them find themselves maybe… actually… liking the other? No way! But it can’t be denied—there’s something there. But then events conspire to tear them apart. And they’re both miserable but they try to hide it, because of course they officially don’t like each other. Life totally sucks for both of them until they admit it—they want to be together. Then they have to go through a very challenging situation to finally get back together—and maybe resolve the problem they were originally thrown together to work on, in some creative way—but when they finally do admit their truth and get together… ta-da! It’s so worth it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s the basic plot for maybe half the books ever written. But if we each wrote a book based on it, we’d end up with a bunch of very different books. Because we’re different people, and different writers. And what we bring to the table… our personal choices… our unique voices… all our thought and work and craft in the actual writing of it… is what makes the book special, not just the germ of an idea that sparked it.”
And as important as idea generation is, I think part of what bothers me about the paradigm that the idea itself is the special/creative/magical part of being a writer is that it takes away from all the other things it takes to write a book. Almost like someone is implying, “Oh, of course you wrote that book, because you had that idea. That was the hard part. Maybe if I’d had that idea, I could have written it too.” (Maybe. Maybe not. But see above—we’re all different, and we’d almost certainly write different books even if we started from the same idea.)
As any writer knows, the most common question people ask you is, “Where do you get your ideas?” We went into this in detail in an earlier post, but—assuming the asker is an adult—it’s feels sort of like someone standing next to you in the middle of a massive food court and turning to you with, “Where do you get food?” (You might be tempted to say, “Like, dude… it’s literally all around you.” But that’s not helpful, because if they knew that, they wouldn’t be asking.)
[We can talk about idea generation in another post, but in my opinion it’s often a combo of (a) making a regular habit of playing “What if?” in your head, and (b) taking two seemingly disparate things—panda bears and peanut butter?—and finding some interesting commonality or mash-up involving them, in a unique and/or thoughtful and/or entertaining way.]
So yes, absolutely spend some time daydreaming and coming up with story ideas. And when you get a “keeper” idea you think is worth developing, go ahead and write a book from it, using that idea as the initial spark. And when you’re all done and the manuscript is written, revised, edited, and polished to the best of your abilities, go back and compare the relative weight of the initial idea with that of all the time and work and emotion and craft you put into writing it. I think you’ll likely find that the initial idea, as important as it is, isn’t nearly as significant as the actual writing of it.
What do these books have in common…?
The Scorpio Races
The Fault in our Stars
The Running Dream
100 Sideways Miles
The Queen’s Gambit
Even Road Rash, not that I’m placing it with the above. Heck, even my new YA novel which will pub in the fall of next year. And the one after that, which I’m currently polishing…
These books have lots of struggles, lots of challenges, lots of setbacks and victories and defeats and triumphs. All done differently. But what they have in common is… no bad guy. Not that they don’t have unlikeable secondary characters, even some downright jerks and full-on asshats. But…
No arch enemy.
No mortal opponent.
No “antagonist” in “direct conflict” with the “hero” as she/he is “set into action” by the “inciting incident” and struggles to achieve their “hidden desire.”
To be clear, I’m NOT saying that having an antagonist (or even an old-fashioned villain) is a bad thing. Many stories have one, including some great works. (Where would Harry be without Voldemort? Or Luke without Darth? Or Frodo without Sauron?)
Bad guys can be great—they can add danger, action, and conflict, and there’s wonderful satisfaction in seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance in a story’s climactic scene (whether that’s an embarrassing defeat or full-on death and destruction).
So… Yay, bad guys!
My point is that novel writing is far less formulaic and far more open-ended and organic than some would have us believe. Of course, one benefit of having specific, Boolean rules is that it’s pretty easy to bundle them all up and say, “Apply these to achieve success!” And then simply list all the mechanical attributes that supposedly go into a work of great fiction.
On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to sell a book (or program or system or webinar) that says: “This is art. There are no rules. No formula. Do what you want. The challenge is to do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and recommend it. Work hard. Don’t shop it until it’s absolutely as good as it can be. Never stop improving, never stop working on your craft. Maintain a positive attitude, and for God’s sake, persevere. Good luck.”
(There. My goofy little take on how to succeed as a writer. Free of charge.)
As you’ve likely guessed, this post actually has nothing to do with antagonists. It has more to do with the fact that if a foundational aspect of the conventional wisdom on “How to write a novel!” can be completely missing from many novels—including some beloved, critically acclaimed, bestselling books—then maybe all the other CW* around “how to write a novel” is suspect as well…?
[*As I’ve alluded to before, I think the reason for much of this—the paint-by-numbers CW we often see online around writing novels—can be attributed to the fact that although they seem similar, in reality a screenplay and a novel are about as alike as a song and a poem. In other words, not very. It may make for an easier sales pitch to pretend they’re the same, but IMO it makes for less engaging novels. And of course, if you want to sell a manuscript the primary goal is to engage the buyer… whether agent, editor, or reader.]
All of which makes you wonder if disrupting some of the other foundational aspects of writing CW can lead to interesting stories. Like, what about a story that starts so ‘in medias res’ that there literally is no inciting incident? (Maybe we’re fully in when we join the story. ‘And We Stay’ by Jenny Hubbard had some of this vibe about it, to great effect IMO.) Or instead of none, maybe a story that has two or more inciting incidents, perhaps one pushing the protagonist toward the cliff and the other completely over it? (My book-after-next has a whiff of this.) Or maybe a book where the climax of the story is truncated because it turns out that the protagonist simply showing up for the big battle IS the climax, not whether he actually wins or loses? (‘We Are the Goldens’ by Dana Reinhardt had something sort of similar, where the story ended at what might have been the inciting incident in a more typical story.)
And so on…
My point being there is a lot of fertile creative ground out there—much of it relatively untouched—and the novel might be the perfect vehicle to use in exploring it. Because with a book, if you can think it, it can happen. Period. No extra budget needed for special effects, no two-hour runtime limit, no three-minute song length needed to get airplay. It’s wide open. And if the world you need to set your story in doesn’t exist… you simple build the damn thing.
The sky’s the limit, as long as you follow the dictum listed earlier:
Do whatever you want… as long as you do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and enjoy it.
Writing (taken as a lifestyle, whether vocation or avocation) consists of two discrete areas: the writing itself… and everything else (EE).
The writing itself is fairly discernable: Plan/plot/ponder; initial drafting; subsequent drafts; revising; rewriting; polishing. Self-directed at first, then possibly with editorial suggestions.
Let’s further divide “everything else” into two areas: EE1 and EE2.
EE1 is basically book-related stuff (querying; submitting; discussing things with your agent; back-and-forthing with an editor; etc.) that—while not specifically writing—is absolutely germane to the completion and publication of your work. (If you’re an indie author, this could also include formatting for ebook, book design, cover art, writing flap copy, etc.)
EE2 is a little fuzzier, as it contains a lot of stuff that isn’t directly book-related, yet which we could still conceivably think of as “writing adjacent.” This might include: promoting; networking; marketing; touring; blogging/vlogging/podcasting; running giveaways; developing and maintaining a website, and seventeen thousand various other items somewhere within the broad category of “social media.”
Notice how—in a weirdly reversed hierarchy—the further we get from the actual writing, the bigger the categories get? The more options for non-writing we have? And the more time some of these non-writing tasks can eat up?
The ratio (of time spent on each) is important, if for no other reason than we have a finite number of hours we can dedicate to the whole activity falling under the broad umbrella known as “writing.”
I’m certainly not here to suggest how much time you should spend on each. (Duh. At this exact moment I’m writing a blog post instead of working on my WIP, right?) It’s different for different writers, regardless. I’m just suggesting that maybe we should take stock of it occasionally, lest it get away from us and our focus unintentionally drifts. (Otherwise known as ‘mission creep.’)
I’ll further posit that it seems much more common for writers to go from a higher W:EE (Writing to Everything Else) ratio to a lower one than the other way around.
Very few of us do too much writing and not enough EE. (Although I’m sure somewhere there’s an author with amazing books in a trunk—which we’ll never see—because they just write them, then put them away and start another one.)
But a lot of us seem to actually do more EE than writing. Again, not for me (or anyone else) to say. But something I can say is that in the overall scheme of things, the writing itself is the most important part, and will have a bigger impact on whatever success we attain.
Especially early on in our careers.
I mean, if Ms. Wildly-Successful, Million-Selling Author wants to spend much of her time administering her charitable foundation or whatever, her career is probably going to be okay because she’s a known successful commodity with nothing to prove. But when we’re lower on the ladder, we do have something to prove. And by far the best (and pretty much only) way to prove that is to place a really strong manuscript in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader. And of course, the only way to do that is to write that manuscript first. (And then, yes, we have to do a bit of EE regarding getting said manuscript into the hands of that agent, editor, or reader.)
So maybe I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone else. So maybe I’ll end this here. And maybe I’ll get back to work.
My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
The more I pay attention to it, the more I begin to believe that one factor may be more important to producing quality work than any other: The ability to recognize it.
And taking it one step further, the ability to recognize its absence.
And finally, the ability/willingness to replace <non-quality work> with <quality work>.
The above posits two things:
1. We can produce quality work at times.
(This seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
2. We are imperfect, and don’t always produce quality work.
(This also seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
Therefore, we can do good work, yet we don’t always do good work. Why is this? I mean, wouldn’t we want everything we do to be “quality” work?
I believe it’s partially because we don’t always take the steps necessary to recognize when we’re not doing quality work. This takes time, effort, and an understanding of what constitutes good work*.
[*I realize this opens the huge can of wildly subjective worms known as: What is good writing? We’re certainly not going to solve that one here, and far be it from me to set the bar for this, regardless. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s loosely accept “Writing which you and agents and editors and publishers and especially readers believe does an effective job at conveying the story such that it feels like ‘lived experience’ to the reader. It doesn’t take the reader out of the story, or get in the way of the story, but instead presents it as an emotional experience that feels real – at least in the moment – to the reader. Regardless of the type of story.” Let’s go with that for now… ]
One could undertake a focused study specifically designed to help them recognize, understand, and—hopefully—produce quality work in fiction. (There are a number of MFA programs aimed at exactly this. Some of them are even genre-focused, such as a deep dive into kidlit, etc.) Some writers take this path, and some have good results with it. In my view, any educational experience that asks the student to look deeply into why something works or doesn’t work is likely to be beneficial on some level. (And aside from that, there are lots of other opportunities to study the craft both within and outside the traditional educational environment.)
On the opposite end, you could simply read with abandon – broadly, deeply, and at a high volume. This—although usually done without the knowledge at the time that it’s great training for being a writer—is how many of us learned the fundamentals of the craft. If we’ve spent a significant amount of time reading as described, it would be hard not to absorb and internalize at least some of the precepts of “good” writing*. (This assumes we’re reading “good” writing, but again simplifying for the sake of discussion: We’re very likely reading what we will later want to produce—publishable fiction that we like in a genre with which we’re familiar. Which is close enough for now.)
[*Synchronicity! I just read an interview in a separate-yet-still-creative field (audio mastering) which said, about the same concept, “There is something that comes from that level of immersion where the depth of what is absorbed cannot be fully articulated. It is the repetition, the problem solving, and the law of big numbers. Smaller samplings don’t reveal as much information…” I couldn’t agree more.]
This doesn’t automatically make us a good writer, any more than being a music lover automatically makes us a good musician. But at least it gives us a critical bar to aim for. In the hierarchy of self-knowledge, going from “unconsciously incompetent” to “consciously incompetent” is a massive step in the right direction. (Because once we know we need to improve—and where—we’re on your way. But until then, we’re sort of stuck.)
Taking the music analogy a little further, when young musicians first learn how to play, they almost universally work up a set of cover tunes—they learn to play popular (and generally good) songs, by popular (and generally good) bands. They’re not doing it as a conscious study of “what the greats of the field have done before us.” They’re not doing it as a study at all. They’re doing it because (1) it’s fun to play cool tunes, (2) they want to jam with friends, and it really helps to have some agreed-upon songs they can all play, and (3) they want to gig, which means they have to learn and play songs other people want to hear. Yet in this process they’re also unintentionally giving themselves an education that’s vital to continuing their musical journey. (And as a counterpoint, occasionally you’ll hear a competent musician try to play a song in a certain style—funk or country or blues or whatever—and it’s clear they haven’t ever really listened to that genre.)
You see this sometimes with writing. You’ll read something by someone with the ability to put together well-written sentences, yet when you read it, you might think: Have they ever even read a romance (or SF or mystery or YA or whatever)…? Because it’s written in a way that indicates unfamiliarity with the canon. (And consider the following: whoever reads your Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novel will likely have already read a ton of Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novels… even if you haven’t. And they’ll be comparing it to everything that’s gone before. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unique, but there’s a significant difference between “new & unique” and “misses the mark.”)
And finally, you’ll sometimes see a manuscript containing good writing (however we define it) followed by a patch of over-baked, cliched writing. And the question here might be: Can they not see the difference between this stuff right here and that stuff over there, only three pages away?
I’m going to suggest that maybe they actually can’t. At least, maybe not in the moment. And the reason for that may be that they spend a certain amount of their reading time perusing work that has the very issue described above. Which can have the opposite result as the “raising the bar” effect that can come from reading really good stuff. I’ve personally noticed a phenomenon where if I’ve recently read a fair amount of “not so good” work (however we define that), my own writing seems to suffer. I’m not sure exactly why, but the effect seems to be real. Maybe it sort of de-calibrates my “quality compass”…? (Imagine if you watched a whole bunch of subpar, student-made, cliché-ridden slasher films, then set out to make a moving, nuanced, coming-of-age film? I’m guessing you might be better off studying the masters, instead.)
Which is why I not only say ‘Read Good, Write Good,’ but also… perhaps… ‘Read Bad, Write Bad.’
Sometimes a producer, during the pre-production phase of making a record, will distribute a list of records for the bandmembers to listen to prior to going in to the studio. Maybe records that have a certain vibe or quirkiness or sophistication (or whatever aspect the producer wants to spotlight). This is not in an effort to tell them, “Let’s play music just like this!” It’s more to give them an overall bar to shoot for… often the records are in a completely different genre than the record they’re going to make. (Which is all the better, as copying it is completely off the table.)
So… perhaps we can do likewise if/when we find ourselves a little adrift regarding being able to self-critique our own work for whatever reason. Prior to starting a recent realistic/contemporary novel, in an effort to calibrate my “What does good look like?” meter, I read a book in a totally different field (magic realism, in this case). It was very different from my work in a lot of fundamental ways (character, voice, vibe, plot, etc.) but it was brilliantly written, it let me know what was possible, and it sort of put me in the frame of mind to try to “get out there and do good work.”
So… happy reading!
People often say, “Are you a process person or a results person?”
To which I usually answer, “Yes.”
Which is true in a couple of ways. Yes, I enjoy both the process and the results of creation pretty equally, with some obvious exceptions. (The process of original drafting is pretty damn magical, regardless of where it ends up… while the process of a structural rewrite can be painful but the results can be very rewarding.)
But beyond that, I’ve learned that the process can actually help determine the results.
I’ve also learned that process is specific to the individual, and it’s a mistake (and a little ego-centric) to say that because something worked for you, it will therefore be the best for someone else. Because writing (and music and dancing and filmmaking and…) is an art, not a science. And because we’re all a study of one.
However, there are still a few valid things we can say about process…
1. We can say, “This worked for me,” and explain why, followed by, “…so it might work for you, too. Or not. But it may be worth a try.”
2. We can say, “Here are several ways people have done this, successfully, so you might want to try them and see if any of them fits your workflow.”
3. And we can say, “Regardless of which one you use, recognize that process is important. So if the work isn’t working, before you bail out and think that you’re bad or your idea is bad or your writing is bad… maybe try a different process.”
That last one is important. Not all processes work for all people. Sure. But it’s also true that in most cases, no single process will work for all projects by the same writer. I have a process I’ve dialed in over years that works well for articles, but I used a very different process for my non-fiction books. For book length fiction, they’re all somewhat different.*
[*With my first novel (still in the trunk, thank God) I made a detailed outline. But with the next one—my first published novel—I had a character and a setting and a basic conflict and an idea about where it was going, and away I went. With an SF novel, I took a short story I’d written earlier and morphed it into the first chapter of a much longer story. With the novel I recently sold, I’d just finished work on another project and still had the bug to write, so I just jumped in the next day and started writing with no plot in mind whatsoever… just a character and a vibe. And with the one on deck after that, I imagined a funny scene (just a funny line, really), made that the inciting incident, and went from there. I knew the ending—sort of—but much of the middle was discovered en route.]
So again, when the muse is on strike, don’t automatically assume there’s something fundamentally wrong with you or your writing. In my experience—both with my own work and the work of others—most of these issues are process-oriented. You can’t change who you are (and you’re the only you, regardless, so revel in that) but you can change your approach to how you’re doing the work.
It may be something pretty big-picture, like…
Issue: You’re floundering and constantly backpedaling/deleting/rewriting.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re unclear about where you’re going.
Process change: Take off the “pants” and put on some “plot.” (Make an outline.)
Or more stylistic, such as…
Issue: The work doesn’t connect because it’s overwritten.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re consciously trying to write “writerly.”
Process change: Get out of the way of the story and tell it plainly.
Or maybe business oriented…
Issue: Striking out with multiple projects in quick succession.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re submitting too soon, before it’s ready.
Process change: Finish; let sit; tear into it like you didn’t write it; beta; revise; polish.
And so on.
The point isn’t to diagnose every possible process issue with our writing. The point is to recognize that when we’re not getting the results we want, the answer might not be to blindly follow the same process, like there’s only one way to do it. Instead, the answer might be to take a step back, appraise the situation objectively, and try to think of different ways to approach it.
Sometimes it’s as simple as how we think about the work itself:
Maybe my project’s not a YA book, it’s a middle grade book?
Or: Maybe it’s not a memoir, it’s an historical novel?
Or: Maybe I should dump the magic and go with the strongest part of the story, which is the contemporary/realistic aspect?
Or our marketing approach:
Maybe, since my work is an ‘amateur female detective’ mystery, I should read a bunch of amateur female detective mysteries, find the ones that are a good fit for mine, and make a targeted, personal query to the agents/editors who worked on those books?
Or: Maybe I should give the person at the other end of my query what they actually care about (a concise, compelling description of my story) instead of talking about me and my ‘brand’ and my ‘platform’…?
Or: Maybe I should shop the story that means the most to me, vs trying to catch the flavor of the month as it goes zipping by?
Or the nuts & bolts of how we actually write:
Maybe, since I’m not at my best when I get up an hour early every morning, I should forget all that ‘write every day’ advice and instead set aside a few hours each weekend when I feel motivated and productive?
Or: Maybe, instead of not putting on the editor hat until I’m done with the whole draft, I should try editing each chapter as I finish it, so I’m building on a stronger foundation?
Or: Maybe I should forget about the hypothetical reader and write a story that I, personally, would love to read?
OR… maybe… you could take some of the above options and use them as a jumping-off point and do something entirely different… different from what you’re currently doing, and different from these examples. Maybe the opposite of these examples.
That’s the whole point – there is no ‘one right way.’ But there is a way (probably several ways) that will work for you. You just won’t know which one it is until you try it.
First, some down-and-dirty definitions…
Memoir: A written chronicle of your memories of what happened to you (hence the name), either during a select period of your life or the entirety of it.
What makes it work: Delineation of the facts around your life—as best you can recall—filtered through your unique perspective… all hopefully bundled up in an interesting fashion.
Novel: A story constructed by you, with characters, settings, and events (and responses to them) chosen specifically to yield a compelling story. Ideally written in a way that makes it emotionally meaningful for the reader.
What makes it work: Connecting with the reader via your chosen characters and events, and hopefully crafted such that it gets at a bigger truth which will resonate with others.
I think we all know the fundamental difference between these—at least intellectually—yet we frequently see early writers negatively impacted by conflating them.*
[*I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an aspiring writer talking to a group about their WIP plot and someone says, “What if you…?” and the writer doesn’t respond with, “I like that” or “It doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to say,” but instead says, “But that’s not the way it happened!”]
I think some of this comes from confusing inspiration with source material. Many of us—especially with our early stories—are inspired by events that either happened to us or happened to others we know. This makes sense—we likely have an emotional connection to these events since they happened to us or people close to us—and we’re familiar with the specifics, so we can write those events with some verisimilitude.
This is all good—great, even—as far as it goes. Especially the part about the authenticity that comes from writing from personal experience.
The issue arises when the writer somehow thinks she needs to write it the way it happened. Either through (a) the belief that “the way it really happened” is somehow a stronger story than the one she could concoct, or (b) some sort of loyalty to the actual facts around the inspiring incident. Let’s deconstruct these…
(a) The problem here, of course, is that reality rarely follows a compelling, tightly-plotted story line. Simply because something “really happened” does not automatically make it more believable or real or compelling or resonant. These factors come from the value-added contributions of the writer, who makes the story more compelling, etc., through her story-telling, craft, and hard work.
(b) If you feel a sense of loyalty compelling you to tell the story as it happened, that’s great! Write a memoir (if it happened to you) or a non-fiction work (if you’re not personally involved in the events). Either of these will be stronger due to your fealty to the facts as they occurred. But I’d advise against writing a novel. Because a novel is creative truth-telling through lying. And “sticking to the facts” here can weaken—if not flat-out kill—the larger truth. (By robbing the novel of one of its special powers, as we’ll see below.)
So that might be what not to do. But what should we do? We can use the actual events to inspire a story, to give us a jumping-off point, to motivate us to write the wonderful/amazing/romantic ending that should have happened… or maybe to write the one that would have been terrifying had it actually occurred. Or let justice prevail… let the bad guy get his comeuppance in a poetically satisfying way. Or start with the bare beginning of the factual events and take it in a completely different direction. Or simply use your familiarity with the broad setting and events to add authenticity and detail to all those small little scenes in what is an otherwise wholly constructed tale.
Any of these will allow you to fold your personal experience and knowledge into your fictional story and up the “feels real” quotient without being boxed in by “how it really happened.”
Because at its heart I think one of the hidden powers of a novel is that it allows you to take some small fact about the human condition—whether funny or sad or scary or romantic or thrilling—and amplify it in a way that speaks to a larger truth. And being chained to the bare facts yanks the amplifier’s plug out of the wall, leaving your story without the power it could have had.
It’s a common belief among editors (because it’s largely true) that many early novels are autobiographical in some way. That’s fine. I’ve done it, most authors I know have done it, and you’ve probably done it (or will do it) too. All to the good… our experiences can be strong inspiration and make things feel more like actual lived experience to the reader, as discussed above. But we should use them as a springboard to take our story wherever it wants to go, not as gutters to keep it within a narrow lane.
Factual events can inspire your novel, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the source material. They’re not. The source material is what’s in your heart.
Happy lying... happy truth-telling!
At the time of this writing, in-store visits are still problematic in many locations. I hear some authors say they can’t wait until we can do them again (amen!) while some are doing virtual visits. (Good on them. Indies—and authors—can use all the help they can get these days.)
But I also hear some questioning the fundamental usefulness of book touring, per se.
Fair enough. Because I’ll be the first to admit that if you look at it strictly from a “return on investment” viewpoint, the answer’s not always crystal clear. So let’s step back a bit…
A few years ago my wife and I had books come out at the same time and decided it might be fun to do a joint book tour. Our plans started small but, as per usual, once we began brainstorming all common sense left the room and we ended up booking and doing what was probably the largest national book tour of that year.
Sixteen weeks on the road, covering almost 100 bookstores plus dozens of school visits, along with conferences, festivals, libraries, book fairs, etc. Done in two eight-week legs—one in the spring and one in the fall, with a break over summer because our kids were home—we covered much of the U.S., burning up 15,000 miles of highway in our trusty minivan.
It was a blast getting to visit all those bookstores… virtually all of which were indies. When we were booking the tour, we had a few criteria: If it was a mom & pop store*, if they had a store dog or cat, and if they had coffee, they were definitely in… assuming they were anywhere close to our planned route.
[*We also visited a lot of iconic indies that are well beyond “mom & pop”—Book People, Tattered Cover, Powell’s, Hicklebees, Changing Hands, Wild Rumpus, Anderson’s, The Bookworm, etc. But you get the vibe...]
We can talk about the logistics of touring later (as usual, I have thoughts) but today I want to address the question behind the question. The initial question is usually something like “How many books did you sell?” and/or “Did you make money?”
The answer to the first one is technically zero. We don’t sell books. (But we gave away hundreds, with our goofy-yet-fun “Booking” adventures, invented by my brilliant wife.) But the stores we visited definitely sold some books. I don’t know exactly how many, but certainly well into the thousands. (Which doesn’t mean we hit list. We presented at 100 stores, right?)
The answer to the second one is no. And yes, probably, eventually. And the real answer: Umm… that’s sort of missing the point.
The answer’s a little vague because it was kind of a hybrid tour, regarding support. When a publisher sends you on tour, they usually fly you to a big city where you present at a few stores and maybe a school, then to another city (where you do the same), and on to a few more cities. All very nice, and all on their dime. (This is 80/20 observational vs. experiential for me, but my wife has been fortunate enough to have been toured several times.) But we wanted something a little different. We wanted to visit the indies in flyover country, many of whom don’t get authors every day, if ever. And we wanted to visit a LOT of them. (Partly, my wife wanted to visit all those indies in the middle of the country as a “thank you” for hand-selling her books all these years. And we wanted to see America, beyond the left and right coasts.)
Booking the tour and being in contact with our respective publicists, it quickly became apparent that we were planning something far beyond their purview. Which was fine by us—we knew going in that this was above and beyond what we could expect any publisher to spring for. But it wasn’t entirely on us—the publisher generously supported a leg in the middle of it, where we flew from Seattle to Chicago, presented at a pair of conferences as well as some schools and stores, then back to Seattle where our book-wrapped van awaited. Also, some of the events have decent honorariums, and I recall after one particularly busy stretch of back-to-back-to-back presentations at bigger conferences and schools we were pretty worn out, but then I did the math and said, “Well, we just paid for our gas for the whole tour.” But on the other hand, over 100 nights in hotels can really add up, even if you’re not staying at the fanciest place in town.
So I really don’t know… maybe we made money, maybe not? Either way, it would be hard to make the case that we came home flush. (And the royalties from books sold at our in-store events wouldn’t show up for six months, regardless.) All of which leads to the question behind the question:
As we’ve seen, the reasons many people immediately think of (sell books, make money) may or may not apply. Yes, part of that equation depends on the level of support—if any—you get from your publisher. But there are longer term benefits that will apply regardless of where the financing comes from. Such as…
Building relationships with booksellers.
This is a biggie. In the Amazon age it’s easy to overlook the importance of word-of-mouth and—especially—hand selling, but this is still a very effective way for books to reach readers. And it carries the weight of authenticity: readers will take a trustworthy bookseller’s recommendation over an algorithm any day. But you have to do your part. If you just swoop in, basically say “Buy my book!” then sign and leave, you have become the sales algorithm. But if you do the work to bring some new potential customers to an indie store, offer the store and attendees something of value*, and interact with the customers and staff in a way that’s far removed from simply trying to sell your book, you may have the start of a real relationship. And—assuming they find you and your work to be genuine—the bookseller may be inclined to recommend your work long after you’ve gone.
Plus, writers don’t work in the typical office environment… most of it is just you, alone with your computer and the voices in your head. It’s nice to get out once in a while and commune with your ‘co-workers’… the booksellers and librarians and teachers who care about the written word as much as you do.
[*When it made logistical & scheduling sense, we would sometimes offer to do a pro bono author presentation at a nearby school of the store’s choosing. Sometimes the store would hold an associated book sale at the school and sometimes not, but regardless, we always made a point of telling the school (and the students) that their local indie bookstore could have picked any school to have us visit and they picked this one, so please return the favor and support them. And of course we’d also mention that we’d be at their local bookstore that evening, which often brought students and their families to the store. Helping connect stores with their local schools and community is a win-win situation for everyone.]
Interacting with your readers…
Let’s face it—meeting fans of your work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on book tour… in times when inspiration is running low, nothing quite picks you back up like someone telling you what your work meant to them. And if you give your time and attention freely and honestly to your readers, they’ll remember that going forward, also.
…and reaching new ones.
Everything I just said about interacting with fans applies to new readers, too. Even those who’ve never read a word you’ve written will leave with an impression of you… as a person, if not (yet) as a reader. And don’t think for a minute that the one doesn’t affect the other*.
[*My overall take on in-store presentations: If you swoosh in there and regurgitate a list of your various books with descriptions of each, etc., you come off like a walking version of your publisher’s catalog. Zzzz… Or worse, if you do the “Well, in my book…” thing (popular with non-fiction authors but not unheard of with novelists) you come across like an “As seen on TV” salesperson. But if you’re an honest, engaging, sincere, funny, and/or informative person (pick any of the above, as long as it includes honest), and you offer something of value to the attendees (vs. ego-boosting yourself) then—without even really talking about your books—their overall impression will likely be something along the lines of, “Wow. They were helpful and took the time to answer my question and they seemed nice and authentic… and funny, too. I bet I’d enjoy their books!”]
Presenting in front of potential advocates for your work.
This is one of those intangible things that can pay off in the long term, but it’s hard to know exactly when or how. However, presenting to educators or librarians or teachers or even teachers-of-teachers (NCTE, anyone?) can only be a good thing. There may be no immediate payoff from any specific conference (any potential honorarium or travel allowance aside) and there may never be. But that’s okay. Besides them learning about you and your work, there’s a lot you can learn from them… about what works and what doesn’t in an educational setting, about what interests their students, etc. It’s good karma. And you just never know*.
[*Example: I’ve presented in front of teachers at reading conferences in the Midwest, including during the tour described above. The following year, a teacher in L.A. contacted me and said she’d heard about my book from an educator at an English teachers’ workshop who used my book as an example during a presentation. She thought it was a good fit for something she was teaching, so she required all the school’s incoming freshmen to read it over the summer. It’s not possible to trace events back to where it started, but there’s a fairly decent possibility that someone heard me talking about the book somewhere and told someone else who told someone else (teachers talk!) and pretty soon… Bob’s your uncle.]
Showing your publisher that you’re willing to do your part.
Like the other points, this is sort of unquantifiable but very real, nevertheless. It’s no secret that at least part of the publicity for any upcoming publication depends on the author, and the more you can do—and the more you can let them know about what you’re doing—the more they appreciate it, and may be inclined to think favorably of you*. So another benefit of doing whatever you can—on whatever level is workable for you, whether that’s garnering local press or doing local signings or library presentations or schools or whatever—is that you’re demonstrating your willingness to pitch in and be a team player. Which can only be a good thing.
[*I remember dropping our editor off at the airport to fly back to NYC after she flew in to see a pair of special events we were doing in the Northwest in the middle of that crazy tour, and I thanked her for coming. She seemed genuinely surprised and said, “Oh no… thank you, for all you guys are doing!” That brought home to me the fact that yeah, along with promoting ourselves and our works—and books & reading in general—we were also promoting our publisher’s products, and this fact was not lost on them.]
So… does it make sense to tour?
Strictly in dollars and cents over the short term, it might not. (Like, if you were only going to put out one book and your only goal was to maximize immediate profits, touring beyond your local area would be counterproductive.)
But over the long haul, with multiple books over multiple years (which I’m guessing most of us want), then yes, you can make a strong case that building up bookseller loyalty… that meeting your readers in person… that helping create new readers… that presenting in front of people who value books the way we do… that helping your publisher get the word out… is absolutely beneficial over the long haul.
Because as I’ve said before, for virtually all of us this isn’t a get-rich-quick thing. It a long game. So we need to take the long view. And getting out there and doing all the things we’ve discussed is a great step toward building a solid foundation for a creative career.
Blurbing is considered a necessary evil in the industry. “Necessary” is debatable (most industry insiders say most blurbs don’t move the needle much… if at all) but the “evil” part is understandable, from both sides:
The author of the work in question basically has to approach her fellow authors—hat in hand—and beg for favors. And of course, the more desirable blurbs come from those higher on the food chain, so we’re generally asking more successful authors to spend some of their precious time reading our upcoming book—and then composing thoughtful-yet-hopefully-enticing commentary about it. All at no cost.
So it’s a tough ask. Which is why newer authors like to have others (read: editors and/or agents) do the asking for them. Another benefit of this is having a go-between insulates the asker from the askee, so the askee doesn’t feel quite so bad saying, “No, sorry, I’m too busy with my own career to read and gush over a stranger’s book at the moment. But thanks for asking!” And even worse is when the blurber reads said manuscript and thinks, “Holy heck! No way do I want my name associated with this burning pile of poop!” Much better to have editor #2 politely tell editor #1 that author #2 has decided that author #1’s project “…is wonderful, but isn’t quite right for her. But my author wishes your author all the success in the world.”
In a perfect world, the author’s editor will put out feelers to a number of potential blurb candidates and only tell her author about the ones who actually said yes, then actually read it and actually had something wonderful to say about it. With no mention of all the “Sorry, love to, but I’m too busy right now” (aka hell no!) responses. Less hurt feelings all the way around.
However, in the real world the author frequently has to at least draw up a list of people she might like to have blurb her book, avoiding the obvious no-go candidates. (Just like with comps: Your new book probably isn’t the next “Happy Potter meets The Hunger Games with a little Twilight thrown in,” nor should you ask your editor to try to bug JK or Suzanne or Stephenie for a blurb. Or Oprah.) But there are plenty of authors who write in the same general area as you and/or whose readers might like your work, and who are successful enough that their name will—in theory—add some cache to the back cover of your book. And you might be able to get your editor or publicist or agent to ask them, if it makes sense and if they have some sort of realistic connection to them.
But you may also end up doing some or all of this yourself, either because the others mentioned above don’t have any connection to your list of promising candidates, or because maybe you don’t have an editor/agent/publicist, because you’re an intrepid indie author.
So either way, hat-in-hand it is, for many of us. Which leads to the big question:
When do we query for a blurb?
You’d think this would be fairly obvious… when you have a complete manuscript, all ready to go (not just written but revised, rewritten, edited, copyedited, and polished… whether trad or indie) but before publication. In other words, basically at the ARC stage. But enough before pub date that your publisher can get those wonderful, gushy, blurby words onto the book’s jacket (or else why get them in the first place?) but hopefully late enough that the blurber will be reading something close to the final version.
All the above makes perfect sense, but then someone decided that if they got blurbs even earlier, they could put those words of praise on the jacket of the ARC itself. And then reviewers (and librarians and booksellers and other tastemakers of all stripes) might see it and think, “Well, so-and-so already loves this, so maybe I should, too.” Thus the “pre-blurb” was born. But—to its credit, I guess—it’s still editors/agents/authors asking other editors/agents/authors to have someone read and blurb an almost-ready-for-primetime, soon-to-be-published book.
And then some creative soul—who likely spends more time on ‘writer twitter’ than on actually writing—decided that if they got a famous (or at least well-published, or at least, well… published) author to read and blurb their un-agented, un-edited, un-contracted (maybe even unfinished) manuscript, then they, too, might be published soon.
Yup. They don’t want to use Mr. or Ms. Famous Author to tell the world how good they thought the book was. In reality they simply want to use his/her glowing words to try to land an agent. Who—in theory—will be so dazzled by this that they’ll sign said book right up and immediately start repping it to editors who will also fall into lockstep once they see the blurbiest blurb in the entire blurbdom attached to said manuscript… never mind whether the manuscript itself is great or good or even fair.
A few issues with the--ahem—“pre-pre-blurb”…
1. You’re asking a busy person (all people are busy) to spend a good chunk of their free time reading your manuscript and then composing comments intended for the back of a book which may never see the light of day. (Yes, blurbing authors are doing another—often newer—author a big favor by reading and blurbing their book, but there is also the intangible, theoretical perk for the blurber of getting their name on the back of every copy of the book they blurbed. Which—assuming the book is in fact really good and does really well—might actually be of some small benefit.)
2. You’re asking that busy person to read a manuscript which almost certainly hasn’t been through the editorial process published books go through. Yet they (in theory) are supposed to comment on it as though it were a fait accompli, already sitting on the shelves of their local bookstore next to all the published books it’s competing with.
3. You are attempting to leverage the good name of Mr. or Ms. Famous Author specifically to fuel the next step in your career by attracting the attention of an agent and/or editor. I realize all blurbing is about marketing to one degree or another, but this seems pretty blatantly one-sided, and de-centers the fundamental work of producing a strong, polished manuscript.
4. And finally, if the manuscript actually does get representation and then publication*, the book which finally gets published (complete with blurb on the back) will likely be a different book (sometimes wildly different) than the one which was originally blurbed. And Mr. or Ms. Famous Author’s name will be inextricably linked to something they may not have chosen to blurb in the first place, had they seen the final result. (Pig in a poke, anyone?)
[*Please note that none of this is to say you shouldn’t blurb an indie author. If the indie book is 95% polished and ready to go to pub (i.e. it’s at the ARC stage) and you read it and like it, then sure, why not? But if it’s as described above—basically an early draft that hasn’t been through the editorial process—then everything we said about a pre-pre-blurb still applies.]
So… when should an author ask for a blurb? IMO, when they’ve done all the hard work to get to the point where the book is ready to launch—writing, revising, polishing, querying, submitting, editing, copyediting—and ready to be read. (With the assumption that all that hard work has resulted in a work worthy of another author putting her stamp of approval on it.) But not before. Blurbing is supposed to be, “Would you mind reading this book which we’ve put so much time and energy into, and maybe give the public a sneak preview of what they can expect?” Not, “Would you attach your name to my early draft and launch* my book for me?”
[*See this post on the fallacy of thinking an author can help you fast-pass the line to publication.]
Happy blurb hunting!
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.
Once upon a time I managed to land an agent with my OBFN* and he dutifully shopped it around. After it had made the rounds at most of the bigger houses (some nibbles and close calls, but no solid “yes”), I asked him how I’d know when it was time to pull the plug. He said, “You’ll know it’s time when you just don’t want to do it anymore.”
[*Obligatory Bad First Novel]
At the time I thought that was sort of a glib answer, but I eventually came to realize the absolute wisdom of it.
In theory we can agonize over it indefinitely, but in reality it’s a self-solving problem. As long as you have the belief, desire, and energy to continue shopping the project, you’ll keep shopping it. At some point, the desire fades and/or you direct your energy elsewhere, and you eventually stop shopping it. In many cases (including mine) you end up writing something new, and you focus your energy there instead. Which may be a good strategy regardless, since it’s likely to be a stronger manuscript due to you having the experience of writing the previous book. (Again, in my case, it was. I put the painful lessons I’d learned from that first failed manuscript to good use with my second one, and ended up placing it.)
All of that’s fine, and in retrospect finally quitting on that first book and trying to write something better was the right choice for me (although it sure felt crappy at the time). In fact, I’d venture to say we all have projects, either whole or in pieces, sitting abandoned on a hard drive somewhere. Or maybe stripped and sold for parts (which is another post). Bailing on those projects is painful, but part of the bigger process. Sometimes we have to let things go so that we might move forward.
I think we can all understand that. But sometimes, we might reach a point where we just want to stop writing entirely. Which—while being a different thing—is also understandable. Sometimes a break is the best thing for us, especially if we’re using it to recharge and not as avoidance. (I used to work with a coach who, in the middle of leading an intensive group workout, would sometimes call out, “Take a break if you have to, but not a vacation!”)
Stopping is not quitting. Stopping with the intention of never re-starting is quitting. There’s a qualitative difference*.
[*While in NYC a dozen years ago to run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read (a charity my wife and I started to help raise money for school libraries and to buy books for underprivileged children) we were also able to catch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which happened the day before on a course that consisted of several laps around Central Park. That was both an inspiring and tragic race, with many takeaways. One of the most instructive things I saw was late in the race, when one of the runners near the front of the chase pack pulled over and grabbed the chain link fence next to the path. “Oh man, he’s done,” I thought. I mean, why else would you stop running late in a closely contested race? But he wasn’t done. He clung to the fence, took a few deep breaths and stretched his leg, then pushed off and got back in the race. And finished in the money—somewhere in the top ten.]
But maybe you’re not talking about bailing on a particular project, or even taking a break from writing. Maybe you’re contemplating quitting altogether.
First things first: If you want to quit, you’re absolutely free to do so*. At any time. And you owe no one any sort of explanation or apology.
[*Assuming nothing under contract, of course.]
I could say lots of encouraging things, all of which I fully believe. I could tell you that “failure” is what “success” looks like from the middle of the process (which I’ve experienced firsthand more than once), and that virtually every published author I know swam through a lot of mud before finding clear water, and that collecting rejections is absolutely part of the game. (I’ve got quite the collection myself, and my wife faced rejection for almost ten years before a single “Yes!” wiped out all those “No!” responses and she went on to publish thirty-plus books—and counting—with a major publisher.)
I could also tell you that your sticking point is likely either a process issue or a writing issue, and either way, it’s likely fixable. (Which is pretty much the entire reason I host this blog.) You might consider getting some help… some coaching… some outside input… to give you the “second set of eyes” that can be so critical in finding areas for improvement with either your writing or your shopping process.
I could say all that, and more. But I also know that feeling like you’re beating your head against a stone wall without even a glimmer of a crack can be daunting. Maybe to the point of wanting to stop. Maybe forever. And if so, I’d be the last person to judge you for it.
But maybe the thought of officially “quitting” depresses you, leaving you stuck between two bad choices.
So maybe don’t look at it that way.
Maybe look at it as a trial separation.
Maybe try it for a while, and see how you feel.
If you try it and you’re still good with not writing after several months, then you probably have your answer. If the relief—or the feeling of freedom or just the extra time for other pursuits—from not writing is worth more than the value you get from writing, then you may have made the right choice. If so, good for you, and best of luck at whatever’s next.
But if not… if after a while you find yourself unexpectedly mulling over plot points and thinking of settings and—most especially—creating characters that you care about… that feel real to you, then there’s no law that says you can’t go back to writing.
Remember: Home is the place where—when you knock on the door—they have to let you in.
You can stop with a project that’s not working for you.
You can take a break from writing if you need to.
You can quit altogether if that’s what’s best for you.
And you can always go home again.
But it should be your choice, for your reasons.
I think there are two fundamental truisms regarding writing:
1. You should never write because you feel like you have to, and…
2. You should only write because you feel like you have to.
These may seem self-contradictory, but writers will understand...
The old joke is that these two items are all you need to fix anything...
If it moves and you don’t want it to, use duct tape.
If it doesn’t move and you want it to, use WD-40.
I look at “Writing & Running” as the “Duct Tape & WD-40” of creative work: The answer to almost any creative dilemma can usually be summed up as either Write! or Run!
At least, as long as we understand the metaphorical meaning of these terms as they relate to any art form…
Writing = Capturing an idea and fixing it in time and space by doing creative, authorial work in our chosen field. Other examples of “writing” might include: painting, playwriting, sculpting, screen writing, songwriting, etc.*
Running = Unsticking our creative processes by doing a repetitive, relaxing, typically non-thinking activity. Other examples: Hiking, cycling, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, showering, driving, etc.*
[*Please note that none of these is prescriptive. Someone’s “writing” could just as easily be designing a house or creating a lesson plan for an upcoming class. And their “running” could well be shooting hoops, or maybe puttering in the yard. Or any other version of the “creation” mindset and the “recreation” mindset.]
In an ideal world we would have adequate amounts of time for both, as they tend to feed into each other: Doing work can make us feel like we deserve some play, and playing can help us generate creative ideas for our work. Although I don’t think of them as “work” and “play.” I tend to view them as simply two different methods of thinking—one more conscious than the other—but equally valuable, and usually synergistic.
And on the flip side…
[*BTW, NFW do I think anyone’s actually required to write half a million words be a writer. You write? You’re a writer. Period. Same with the 10,000 hr. rule. But the concept exists for a fundamental reason: We get better at that which we spend time doing. You’d think this would be obvious, but we still see people who spend a lot of time talking about the book they’re going to write… maybe even more time than they actually spend writing. Unless one is a Mozart-level savant, one is unlikely to create great works right off the bat, regardless of age, education, or chosen art form. Everyone seems to grasp this concept with music—no one thinks buying an instrument automatically makes them a good musician without practice—but maybe because we can virtually all “write” to some degree, some people seem to expect that the first things they write will be on par with the work that results from significant practice. This may not always be the case.]
There’s a master music educator named Mike Johnston who will sometimes challenge his audience at clinics and workshops to ask him a question which cannot be answered with the word practice. (“How do I get better at double paradiddles?” “Practice!” “How do I incorporate more jazz phrasing into my improvisation?” “Practice!” “How do I play with intensity at lower volumes?” “Practice!”)
Same thing with writing. Want to improve some aspect of your craft? Write. Need to remind yourself that you’re a writer? Write. Want to have a completed manuscript to shop around? Write.
Need to refill the well with creative ideas to help you accomplish all the above?
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.