How Not to Knock Yourself Out of the Game
Getting published isn’t easy. Each day there are more aspiring writers competing to win the attention of a finite number of publishers. And while every editor hopes to discover the next big thing, limited budgets mean that even quality work isn’t guaranteed to sell.
But you’re different. You’re talented, focused, and hungry. You understand that getting published takes more than just craft. It also requires market savvy, professional networking, a little luck, and most of all, the commitment to keep going through the rough times. All of which you have in spades. Congratulations; that combination is all you need.
So long as you don’t knock yourself out of the game.
Before I sold my novel, I joined critique groups and took MFA classes, attended conferences and schmoozed with authors. Along the way, I met hundreds of aspiring writers, many of them very talented, capable of illuminating raw human truths, of crafting sentences that hit like a punch in the eye. Some of them will make it.
The reason is simple: One way or another, many authors handicap themselves. Swept up in the idea of writing, they make mistakes that limit or negate their opportunities. Here are six ways to make sure you don’t cripple your own chances.
Start at the beginning and write to “THE END”
Imagine you paint houses for a living, and you love it. You’ve got a terrific project coming up: great lines and multiple stories that intersect to form an elegant structure. Do it right, and you’ll get the chance to paint another, and another, maybe for the rest of your life.
Given that, what would you do? Would you begin with the garage, stop mid-way, paint a patch around the chimney, then abandon that to stain the deck? Would you split your attention between three separate colors? Would you decide you’d rather paint a different house altogether?
Or would you look at the whole, plan your attack, then pick up your brush and work in steady measured strokes until you were done?
Writing a novel is much the same. One of the worst-and most common-mistakes writers make is not focusing. It’s fine to think about the upcoming sex scene, or to daydream about the big finish. But start writing on page one and keep going till you get there. While the glamorous parts are more fun to write, focus solely on them and you’ll neglect your narrative.
Likewise, it’s dangerous to work on multiple projects. Completing a single book can take years. Try to write three at once, odds are you’ll finish none.
And while it’s practically guaranteed that somewhere in the midst of your novel you’ll get an idea for a better one, resist the temptation. New ideas are the lace lingerie of writing, but novels aren’t made of one-night stands. Like any relationship, commitment is key.
Cherish forward motion
When I was working on my first novel, THE BLADE ITSELF, I had a note taped to my monitor that read, “You are hereby released from writing the perfect novel.” It was a sentiment that helped me navigate hourly crises of faith. Every time I began thinking that the book would be better if I went back and reworked, I read that mantra and forced myself to live it.
The net result was that instead of constantly revisiting my early chapters, I finished a first draft. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was snarled and awkward, with characters popping up unannounced, significant timeline issues, and an internal geography that would drive a cartographer off the ledge.
But it was done. And everything else could be fixed.
Sure, sometimes you have a thunderbolt that absolutely forces you to revisit what you’ve written. But for most cases, consider maintaining a separate document of ideas and problems. Jot them down as they occur, and don’t worry about how daunting the list looks. Mine ended up fourteen pages long, but once I had a completed story, fixing the flaws was simple.
And never forget: One complete rough draft trumps ten polished-to-a-high-gleam first acts.
Hate yourself in the morning
Everybody writes differently, and it’s important to find the time and method that works for you, whether that’s doing two hours every day or locking yourself away to churn out twenty Saturday pages. Which method you use isn’t important.
What’s important is that however you write, you need to set specific goals: page count, word count, finishing a chapter. And you need to feel badly when you don’t meet those goals.
There’s a writer I regularly see at conferences who’s been writing the same book for six years. Every time I ask how it’s going, he tells me how busy he’s been, how work gets in the way, how he’s still planning it in his head.
That’s fine, of course — it’s his prerogative. But no matter how good a writer he is, I’m not holding my breath to see his novel on the shelves.
The best way to complete any project is to break it into small pieces and then steadily accomplish those goals. For me, the goal is a thousand words a day, five days a week. Sometimes I get more, sometimes I barely scrape by, but on the rare occasions I leave the chair without that word count, I beat myself up badly enough that the next day I more than make up for slacking.
It seems harsh, I know, but the truth is that if you don’t put one word after the other, you simply won’t get there. If you want to be published, you have to treat this like a job.
Worry less about selling out and more about selling
I once read a manuscript, a crime story about a cop who had a passion for Hummel figurines. This was a side interest in an otherwise tough guy, and the novel was beautifully written: lush prose, vivid characters, a genuinely tense storyline that revolved around a well-researched political scandal.
But still, Hummel.
The author had written himself into a niche without meaning to. The sum total of Hummel aficionados in the world doesn’t outweigh the complete disinterest of the rest of us. And so despite having a great story with plenty of suspense, what the author had seen as a quirky character trait ended up labeling, and dooming, the book.
Writing a book is art. Art is personal. Your characters and story say something about who you are and what you treasure.
Selling a book is commerce. The rules of commerce dictate that the more people interested in what you’re writing, the likelier it will sell, and the higher the price will be.
The trick is to find a balance that lets your art function as successful commerce. This isn’t about hitting the least common denominator; it’s about avoiding niches. They may be comfortable, but they’re cramped, and you want room for as many people as possible.
It’s a musical fantasy thriller, with lasers
There’s so much talk about having a “big idea” or a “high concept” that aspiring authors often feel like it’s not enough to simply write a compelling book. Admirably enough, they want to do something unique, something that breaks fresh ground. Unfortunately, many attempt to do this by mixing genres.
This is, by and large, a bad idea.
It can be done. It can even be done brilliantly, as in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a sci-fi television series about intergalactic smugglers operating on border worlds similar to the American Old West. It was an unexpected concept that worked. An audience will always respond to a forcefully imagined world. The problem is that no one knows how to position the finished product.
Think of it this way: booksellers need to know where to shelve you. If yours is a crime novel, they put you with Dennis Lehane and Lee Child; if it’s literary fiction, they put it beside Michael Chabon and David Mitchell. If your book features blaster-wielding damsels tap dancing against the clock to prevent a terrorist attack, they put it down.
Genre is a marketing tool. It tells publishers how to promote something, booksellers where to stock it, and fans where to find it. So as temptingly fresh as cross-genre novels can be, they’re risky. Firefly is the perfect example: the writing was spectacular, the world vivid, the idea original. Critics raved and fans swooned.
The network canceled it halfway through the first season.
“What’s your book about?” is not a trick question
Novels are like children — we obsess about them, delighting in their successes and agonizing over their failures. So it’s no wonder that for many authors, condensing their story is a tougher battle than writing the thing.
However, it’s worth the fight. Because sooner or later the person asking the question will be an agent.
When that happens, you don’t want to have to make up an answer on the spot. Instead, have a couple of “hip pocket” versions in different lengths: a sentence, a paragraph, a two-minute pitch. For example, my one-sentence pitch is “The Blade Itself is the story of a retired thief who has to fight for his new life when his old one comes looking for him.” Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. But I conveyed the essence of the story, said the name of my book, and most importantly, respected my listener’s time.
It’s a difficult art, but a crucial one. The ability to present the core of your novel in a few words shows an agent that you’re serious about the business and that you really understand your own story. Plus, as a side benefit, you may find that boiling down your book helps clarify the story in your own mind.
Getting published isn’t easy. The best things you can bring to the table are a terrific book and a willingness to work hard. But beyond that, remember that a little forethought and some care can make a world of difference. After all, in this business there are any number of factors you can’t control. Don’t neglect the ones you can.