Earlier this year, at an online forum for writers that I frequent, I watched a familiar scenario play itself out. A new member joined the forum, full of excitement (and not a small amount of hubris) about the novel he’d just completed. As he posted his early attempts at a query letter for others to review and critique, two things quickly became clear:
- He was convinced the rest of the forum would be utterly dazzled by his unmatched literary brilliance, and
- Before writing his opus, he had done absolutely no research into the business of publishing.
The first one is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be excited about what we’ve written. And we should believe in the literary merit of our work (but not to the extent that we let our egos blind us to the possibility of improving our work).
It’s the second thing that can be the real killer, and yet it’s so common. Many new writers assume the way to write their first book is to simply sit down and start typing. On one hand, this sounds wonderful, and artistically pure. But on the other, imagine applying that logic to some other large task. If you wanted to build a house, and you had no background in construction or architecture, would you just grab some boards and nails and start hammering? Or would you perhaps want to put some planning into the project first?
Over several days and numerous threads on that forum, I watched a painful but increasingly familiar cycle unfold, as this new writer came up against some of the harsh realities of writing and selling commercially viable fiction. So, to borrow from the Kübler-Ross Model (AKA the five stages of grief), I thought I’d share my observations with you, and see if perhaps any of these stages sound familiar.
What do you mean my 375,000-word opus is too long to be marketable?! And what’s this “genre” of which you speak? I refuse to limit my creativity by trying to confine my work within a single easily identifiable genre! And why on earth should I have to bother with writing a query letter? Can’t I just call up one of the top agents and hire her – after all, she works for me, right?
It quickly becomes clear when a writer hasn’t done much (or any) homework on how the publishing business works. And when the harsh realities of this business begin to reveal themselves, some writers are not exactly open to the information.
Many new writers are quick to dismiss the advice and instruction they receive, unwilling to accept that there are any rules or conventions they need to be aware of. This behavior is often fueled by the dogged belief that “it’s gonna be different for ME.”
And now and then you’ll run into writers who are so proud and thrilled to have actually completed their manuscript, it simply doesn’t occur to them that their very first literary effort might possibly have some room for improvement. They don’t say it out loud, but you can tell what they’re thinking:
True, not every new writer considers himself a deity. But godlike or not, the next stage is inevitable for every new writer.
There’s no way around it: when you try to write – and ideally, publish – a book, you’re in for some disappointment. Whether it’s your first time being subjected to critiques of your work, or being rejected by an agent, or trying to wrap your head around some seemingly counterintuitive convention you’re supposed to embrace, you’re often not hearing what you want to hear. And that can make you angry. Very angry.
What do you mean I’m “head-hopping?” And what makes these agents so special, that they don’t have the common courtesy to even reply to my query? And hang on – there’s no WAY I’m going to give my self-published book away for free, even though you say it’s a viable marketing strategy! It’s all so maddening, sometimes you just want to scream.
Suddenly the whole “I’ve always wanted to write a book” dream has turned into a nightmare, when faced with this realization:
But hey, you can’t stay mad forever (although one of my ex-girlfriends could possibly disprove that theory). Soon most new writers find themselves moving on to the next stage.
This is when many writers try to find some way around the rules and obstacles they are encountering, rather than facing them head-on. Or they’ll try to argue their way past these obstacles, often using some apples-to-oranges logic. Hey, The DaVinci Code was 500 pages long, and Tolkien’s stuff was even longer, so why can’t my book be this long? Harper Lee never wrote a sequel, so why do I need to write a series if I want to sell lots of ebooks? I bet Shakespeare never had to write a query letter!
In making these arguments, they overlook the fact that the authors to whom they’re comparing their work were already established, or were writing in a different time and/or business environment, or any number of other factors that negate the comparison. But all the new writer can see is that somebody else got away with this, so why can’t I? Why is it always somebody else who gets all the luck? Why is it always Marcia, Marcia, Marcia?
I’ve seen writers go down swinging in these rhetorical arguments, not realizing that in their attempts to appear strong, logical, and in control, they ultimately appear desperate for some way out of having to face all these hurdles.
Ultimately, most writers have very little luck with their bargaining efforts. With every counter-strategy defeated, and with every shortcut blocked, they find themselves at the next stage.
This is similar to the second stage, but now you’re feeling crushed rather than angered. This is when you may feel it’s time to wallow, and embrace the fact that the world is out to get you, and that life simply isn’t fair. After all, Clive Cussler is rich, and you’re not. At this stage, the outlook can be bleak.
Overwhelmed by all the challenges and responsibilities that a writer has to take on, some go so far as to seek professional help…
…while others resort to a time-honored tradition that has helped countless writers through the darkest of times.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to make it through that tunnel.
With enough determination – and a thick enough skin – many new writers can make it through all this, and begin to accept the way things are, minus all the resentment and angst.
Suddenly, it all seems less like a conspiracy aimed at preventing you – and only you – from achieving your goals. And when you stop taking all these challenges and obstacles so personally, you might even find yourself reaching a Zenlike state of acceptance.
It’s at this point that you can actually start to thrive, with a newfound understanding of the obstacle-strewn landscape you are navigating. And it’s at this point that you can finally sit back down and do some damn WRITING.
The sad thing is, many writers bail out before they make it to this stage, sullenly stomping off to shove their manuscript into some drawer, never again to see the light of day. And while this is mostly a lighthearted post, I do want to help keep new writers from giving up too soon.
So what’s the antidote?
What I recommend to aspiring writers is this: Strive for a balance between the time and energy you put into learning the business, and learning the craft.
[pullquote]Strive for a balance between the time and energy you put into learning the business, and learning the craft.[/pullquote]
On one hand, you can spend your whole life reading every literary blog and scouring every website about agents, self-publishing, social media, or building your “platform” (God I hate that word) – and never have time to learn the little stuff, like the difference between “that” and “which,” or the big stuff, like how to build a dramatic arc, write vibrant dialog, or create compelling characters.
But on the other extreme, if you’re too much of an “artiste” to concern yourself with pesky little things like genre, acceptable wordcount, how to write a decent query, how free and discount promotions can boost your ebook sales, the importance of your cover art and descriptive blurb, etc., you’ll also shoot yourself in the foot. Whether you end up signing with a Big Five house, or publishing your book yourself, you need to take a proactive role in marketing your book, and that requires a solid understanding of this rapidly changing industry.
Like it or not, the era of a writer only needing to write, and leaving the business side of things completely in the hands of others is long gone (if it ever truly existed). Accept that, and move on, understanding that there is an entrepreneurial side to being a published (or publishable) author. It’s a lot to try to wrap your head around, which is why I say strive for a balance.
Set yourself up to succeed
[pullquote]Writing is hard. Publishing is even harder.[/pullquote]
Writing is hard. Publishing is even harder. But I think you can do a lot to avoid or at least partially circumvent these stages of grief by going into this with eyes – and ears – wide open. By doing some homework, and being inquisitive and open-minded – in particular, to advice from people further along in their publishing journey – I think aspiring writers can save themselves a world of hurt. In doing so, they can also accelerate their own path to publication.
How about you?
Have you witnessed these stages in others – or in yourself? And to help others get past such hurdles, what advice do you give aspiring writers who are just starting out? Are there books or websites you point them to? How do you give them a quick “Publishing 101” to help keep them from spinning their wheels? Or do you figure it’s all just a “hard knocks” thing, where the best way to learn is from their own mistakes? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!