What’s On Your Desk?

Thursday Postcard I’m reading a book by Gretchen Rubin called Outer Order, Inner Calm. I’m finding it hard to read this particular book, mostly because I keep rolling my eyes. It’s like getting advice on quitting alcohol from someone who’s never had a drink. Rubin’s modus operandi is systematic. She’s organized. Every action is considered. A case in point Here’s a …

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Thank God for Statistics!

Thursday Postcard Happy New Year!!! If you’re a recent subscriber who found me by way of Amber Petty’s newsletter course, I’m glad you’re here! What a course, what a teacher, what a coach. Over on the blog I’ve been writing a series of posts called “6 Key Principles for Writing a Book.” Writing blog posts is good …

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6 Key Principles for Writing a Book: #5

“It is much more valuable to look for the strength in others. You can gain nothing by criticizing their imperfections.” Daisaku Ikeda I’d extend this to include ourselves. And that brings us to … Principle #5: Focus on strengths and resources rather than weaknesses and deficits This principle is a game-changer, because it balances you …

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Resolutions, Schmesolutions

Thursday Postcard Remembering Dad Every year as it drew to a close, my dad would invent a motto for the next year. “We’re gonna thrive in ’95!” The mottos made me laugh, and they captured a truth about life that I’m getting more convinced about, which is that you often get what you deep-down expect. …

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Art and Compromise

Thursday Postcard What the hell just happened? “Oh, the humanity!” as the reporter said when the Hindenburg crashed into a field right behind him. That’s how I feel about my art these days. Case Study #1: Pottery We might as well call Beginners Wheel pottery “Humble Pie Spinning,” because that’s what it is: humbling.  Here’s …

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6 Key Principles for Writing a Book: #3

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein Principle #3: The Solution and the Problem Are Not Necessarily Related This principle suggests that no solution can be ruled out for any writing problem until the problem can be identified. Let’s say the problem is that you …

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Very Superstitious

Thursday Postcard – Hallowe’en Edition Very superstitiousWriting’s on the wallVery superstitiousLadder’s ’bout to fall13 month old babyBroke the lookin’ glassSeven years of bad luck,The good things in your past When you believe in things that you don’t understandThen you sufferSuperstition ain’t the way Stevie Wonder, “Superstition,” 1972 What an elegant description of superstition: believing in …

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Should I self-publish my book?

Self-publishing is exploding! One bazillion books are being self-published every day! Indie publishers are raking it in! Kidding about the last one. To answer the question above, I must ask YOU a few questions. 1. What’s your goal? Early on, your goal might just be to write the book. But at some point the publishing …

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Writing Groups: Yes or No?

Thursday Postcard I’m in a new writing group. Well, new to me. I was in my previous group for 14 or so years, up until 2019, and it was fantastic. We met in person–at first weekly, then biweekly–and became excellent writing friends to each other. Nothing beats access to writers who want to read your …

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Caring about Hazel Motes

A geek-fest on POV in Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. I’ve read a lot of books and I plan to read a lot more, and what I want from each book is to feel interested in the characters. I don’t need to like them, or feel similar to them. I just need to care about what …

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Rituals and Tools

Thursday Postcard Writers don’t need much…or do they? A pen, some paper…a computer…power…coffee… Shouldn’t writers be able to work anywhere, at any time? In theory, yes.  But Mason Currey’s entertaining book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work shows the sheer variety of things writers have relied on to get going. Pipes, cigarettes, nudity, a special bathrobe, apples, sex, …

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The best way to learn to write

Here at A Writer’s Roadmap we are all about inhaling the stench of failure. Normalizing it, making it a valid part of our experience, and bringing it into the light. Forget the shiny carapace of success…let’s look at the crazy machinery underneath it. Because that’s where the learning is. I started writing so long ago …

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Curiosity vs. Second-Guessing

Thursday Postcard June 9, 2022 When you’re writing–a story, an essay, a book–it is easy to get partway in, then start second-guessing. Second-guessing can look like, “This is awful. I should write something else.” Or “My novel’s antagonist CAN’T be the patriarchy…maybe I should make it a mystery instead!” Or “This book should be about …

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Use the Mind-Body Connection to Write Better

Thursday Postcard May 12, 2022 “The writer’s path lies, always, on the road of feeling.” Stephen Harrod BuhnerEnsouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life Everyone has a body made up of cells, organs, bones, vascular and neural systems, et cetera (my medical training was cut short in kindergarten, so that’s all …

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Starting a Book with Panache

Sometimes I think about how I should start the book I’m working on. Right now I have about 23,000 words written, so when I say “start,” I’m not talking about the process. The process of writing a book is separate from the book’s starting point, which is its first sentence.

The first sentence assumes ridiculous importance because it’s ridiculously important. But you can’t always blurt out a great first sentence when you start the actual book. I usually need to get to the end of the first draft.

A different kind of ABC test

In another post (Raising Questions) I floated out four book openings and asked
a) which are fiction and which nonfiction
b) how they make you feel
c) whether you’d want to read on

Here they are:

1: The greatest hunger in life is not for food, money, success, status, security, sex, or even love from the opposite sex.

a) This one is nonfiction, from The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra.
b) It made me feel annoyed, because of the (we hope) unconscious bias in “love from the opposite sex,” which leaves out everyone who loves their own sex.
c) But it also posed a question, which made me want to read on. The question being “what does the writer see as the greatest hunger in life?”

2: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

a) This one is fiction, from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. [The link on the title will take you to Morrison’s own thoughts on what she was trying to do with that opening line, which is on a very interesting website called On Lines (onlinesonline.com), whose tagline is “Connecting story and song, one line at a time.”]
b) It made me feel mildly curious. I was suspicious of insurance agents, which is a terrible generalization, I know, and one born of ignorance about what the job entails. I knew Morrison was a great story teller. Yet the job itself seemed to form a barrier to my interest, and I was on the fence about whether to keep going. A bunch of considerations flew around inside me–the prose, the size of the book, my own feelings.
c) I wanted to keep going because I like Toni Morrison’s writing and because it posed a question: “why did the agent promise, and who was the promise to, and how did he plan to keep the promise?”

3: The French painter and writer Paul Gauguin–by most accounts mad, bad, and dangerous to know–suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo induced by the work of Darwin and other Victorian scientists.

a) This is nonfiction, from A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.
b) It made me feel extremely interested–the juxtaposition of the cliche “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” followed by the words “suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo” were like a tasty treat for my brain.
c) I felt an interesting mind at work and wanted to read on.

4: I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

a) This is fiction, from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Toczarcuk, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Here’s a review from The Guardian that reflects my own experience of the novel.
b) It made me feel like pulling up a chair and eating the book immediately. I loved it. I love feeling surprised and interested by a book’s first sentence.
c) I couldn’t wait to read on (so I didn’t). I read it first from a library copy, signed it out again a month or two later, then bought it at the legendary Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver. It’s one of my inspirations for a novel I’m writing because it’s so highly entertaining yet has so much depth. BTW, it’s high time I thanked my friend, award-winning writer Hilary Zaid, for texting me one day out of the blue saying she thought I’d like this book. Thanks, Hilary!

I’d love to hear your own first sentences, or those in books you love. Send them to me at info [at] awritersroadmap [dot] com, and if possible, include your answers to the abc questions above.


#1 Strategy for Finishing a Book

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

April 14, 2022

“If you wait until you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you will never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

Harry Crews

This postcard is brought to you by the number 1.

Books, stories, essays, articles–whatever you’re writing, or want to write: how do you get it done?

You get it done by making it #1 at some point every day, or five days a week, or whatever your writing schedule is. Make it the most important thing for even 30 minutes. Make it your absolute #1 task that must get done. 

To do that, it helps to think about what makes you prioritize certain things.

Maybe your house is cleanest when you know someone’s coming over. You get that done to save face.

Maybe you get your finances the most organized they’ll ever be right before tax time. You get that done to file taxes on time and avoid the government’s cold eye on your back. 

As Harry Crews points out above, we need to choose where to put our time. I’m working on a novel and procrastination was making it into this big hairy deal that I didn’t want to face. Nor did I want to NOT write it.

Then my older brother Chris told me about 750 Words, an online place to get some writing done. There’s a free 30-day trial, then it’s $5 a month.

I did not expect to love it, but I do. Somehow it’s got me writing 5,000 words a week (1100 M-Thu, 750 on Friday). It showers the page with confetti when I reach 750 words. I get a spirit penguin  badge for showing up.

But what really floats my boat is this unexpected side benefit–it analyzes my language, gives me a word cloud for each session, and has revealed to me that my novel so far has more thinking than feeling, and completely ignores the sense of smell. 

I recommend it!

But there are other ways to put writing first. Swap manuscripts with a writing buddy, join a writing group, find a contest and get your stuff ready to send.

Accountability, support, hitting a deadline, saving face–whatever motivates you, attach that to your writing to make it your #1 thing for a few minutes each day.

Cheers,
Pat


Mentors Over Metaphors

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard


“Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

 E.L. Doctorow, in interview,
Vogue magazine (Nov. 1984)


Good metaphors like Doctorow’s express a truth, and can help guide you through writing a few pages or chapters, or even an entire book.

But sometimes you want more than helpful quotes. Novelist Jenny Shank writes:

“Perhaps you could win a writing contest and the illustrious judge could pluck you out of obscurity. Or maybe you could attend a workshop taught by a writer you admired and try to dazzle them. Once you had a mentor, they would guide your development, recommend your work to their agent and editor and, voilà, you have arrived.”

None of that happened. Shank’s mentor, Lucia Berlin, eventually came to her not through being brilliant in the right places, but rather through what seemed like a series of obstacles and setbacks.

My own mentors have been night school and MFA teachers, other writers (online and in person), and books that were doing what I wanted to do–what one of my students described as “books that make a hidden part of me feel seen.”

Helping a writer through an entire project is not usually what mentors do. Mentors are more of a “how to be a writer” assist. They confirm that it (writing) can be done. If they’re in a position to give you feedback, they can bolster your belief that your stuff is worth the time it takes to read. Or they can tell you about things they learned the hard way. They can share opportunities, give you a reality check, and steer you toward books that do well what you’re trying to do with yours.

If it weren’t for mentors, whether in books or in real life, I might have stopped writing a long time ago. We’ll never know, because one always appeared when I needed them. Sometimes money changed hands, sometimes not. As my skills and experience grew, new mentors showed up to help me through the next phase.

If you don’t have a writing mentor at the moment, or you’ve never had one, I recommend keeping your eyes open. You’ll recognize them when they cross your path.

Cheers,

Pat


“The best mentorship is not a kind of leading, but a kind of being with.” 

Jenny Shank

Lucia Berlin: My Mentor in Being an Outsider

by Jenny Shank, Poets & Writers Nov./Dec. 2021
[photo credit Buddy Berlin; Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin]


8 Billion Shades of Gray

The Power of Voice

If you’ve ever submitted anything for publishing, you already know that a ‘meh’ piece of work is unlikely to get into print. Literary mags get far more submissions than they can fit into a few issues a year. Agents and publishers get far more manuscripts than they can read in ten lifetimes.

The biggest single antidote to a meh reading experience is creating a compelling voice—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

Back in 2016 or so I sent the third draft of a complete novel to my agent. I thought I’d told a pretty good story. Then we talked about it, and she said it was, you know, okay. She liked the characters. But she didn’t love the manuscript enough to be able to sell it. It lacked oomph.

I knew immediately what she meant, and she was right. I hadn’t dug deep enough into the POV character’s psyche. I was holding back. This made for a boring reading experience. The novel’s voice was not compelling enough to carry the reader through the story, and the story wasn’t compelling enough to make up for a pedestrian voice.

So What About the 8 Billion Shades?

The other  morning I got dressed in gray pants, a gray tank top, a gray button-down shirt, and gray socks. I was halfway to work when I looked down and realized that none of the grays matched. They weren’t even close. One had more blue, one had a pink cast, and one was greenish-gray. Considering they were all the “same” color, they couldn’t have been more different.

This is true also of the nearly 8 billion humans on planet earth: There are no identical views on life. There isn’t even a broad consensus on what constitutes reality. If you could somehow transport into another person’s head, let’s say someone in the same socioeconomic group, in the same town, with the same job as you–heck, let’s imagine they share your partner and kids!–you cannot really know their experience.

That’s because everyone has their own way of experiencing the world. Anyone who believes other people think exactly the same way they do is doing what the psychologists call “projecting.”

If we could really get inside each other’s heads, we would understand that each person’s way of perceiving and deciding is a completely individual experience.

It’s the same with voice

You might have five novels with the same characters and plot (what happens, in what order, from whose POV). Or five memoirs, five essays, five transformational self-help books on the same topic.

Even if the writers have the same skill level and information and approach to the book’s elements, each book will be different because the writer’s voice is different.

Those books that are the most fun to read are those where the writer has no interest in sounding like everyone else. Where the voice is unmistakably theirs alone.

Voice is amorphous and deep and kind of fragile at the same time. Some readers might love a particular novel’s voice while others find it galling. It’s not just flashy tales with a crazy narrator that have voice, but everything you read.

We can all hope that one day we’re writing and the “voice” of the piece will seize us, so we can spew out a terrific draft with complete confidence and verve, as if receiving divine dictation, knowing exactly  how to get it on the page and transport the reader fully into the experience we want them to have.

A Shining Example

Last year I read a novel about an abandoned and abused nine-year-old boy desperate for human connection, who lived in a broken-down bus on the edge of a farm inhabited by a family of psychopaths. His only help came from another child from that same family, and she was afraid to help him. Then winter hit. Then the boy stumbled across a deformed baby sasquatch whose mother had died. Then the sasquatch’s father came back to the territory and took an interest in his son. Then…well, I won’t spoil it for you.

The horror of this child’s ordeal made for an intense reading experience. The writer sometimes showed the boy in scene, in action, with no interior monologue, and at other points let the reader deep into the boy’s thoughts; sometimes he closed up psychic distance to give minute observations from the boy’s perspective and at other times moved out into a much larger perspective.

He showed time passing both in increments and in great leaps, always returning to the boy’s present-day reality of the story.

He interwove “oral histories” from other perspectives to tell the psychopathic family’s story.

Finally, he told some events from an antagonist’s POV, building suspense as the perspectives and the timelines converged toward the climax.

WHAT A BOOK!

And what made it possible for me to read this harrowing story was the writer’s skill in using every one of the elements named below.

Tips to combat ‘meh’

Here are some of the things you can think about when you’re staring at a ‘meh’ draft of your own work and wondering what to do.

Look at point of view

See where you can give it some wiggle room. Even in a novel or memoir that’s mostly first person, you can experiment with omniscience (at chapter openings, for example). This can help create meaning.

In fact, in a story with harrowing or violent incidents, zooming out in space and time might be essential to helping the reader stay with it long enough to get to the end and have the experience you want them to have.

Look at psychic distance

Psychic distance is about whether we are deep inside the people in the story’s (or memoir’s, or essay’s) heads and privy to their thoughts, at arm’s length, a block away, or seeing them only by what they do and say, with no access to their thoughts at all.

Any one piece of fiction or narrative nonfiction can roam the territory between close and far psychic distance. Knowing when to move in and out is part of creating the story’s voice. If you want to let the reader deep inside the person’s experience in a particular moment, limit the details to only what that person would see or notice.

And if you want the reader to pay more attention to the facts than the emotions of an event, you can enlarge out of the person’s immediate experience into a more distant set of observations or facts. Even when you are not relaying interior monologue, the reader can know how the people in the piece feel through what they do, what they say, and how others react to them.

We can also know them through the language of the story. We might not get a character’s thoughts in (say) a scene set in a hospital, we can know if they hate hospitals through the words the writer chooses to describe the setting.

Vary narrative modes

Look at the narrative modes you’re using to relay events (scene, scene fragment, exposition, narrative summary etc.). Exposition and narrative summary can telescope time and bridge scenes, create cause and effect, or give the reader essential information about the piece’s world.

If you have “scene, scene, scene,” with the people in the piece locked into the present-time experience and no pauses for reflection, no chance for the character (or reader) to absorb the meaning of what happened in the scene or consider what that meaning implies for their next move, or to zoom out to the larger picture, the reader can feel like they’re in lockstep, in a claustrophobic experience that doesn’t let up.

Look at tense and time.

Writing in present tense is a completely different reading experience than the same story in past tense. “I pick up the saw and move to the autopsy table” feels different than “I picked up the saw and moved to the autopsy table.”

Get the truth on the page, no matter how weird

Positive or negative, smart or dumb—let the reader in on everything you know.

I try to remind myself every time I sit down in front of my computer that deciding to  become a writer means giving up the rights to any kind of withholding; a good story—a true story—doesn’t have anything to hide.

Aria Beth Sloss
Writers Ask, Issue No. 64, Summer 2014

“If I feel like it.”

These are five dangerous words for someone who wants to write a book (or story, essay, blog post, etc.). They’re right up there with “if I have time.”

“I’ll work on my story today…if I feel like it.”

These words are especially dangerous if you’re rusty, new to writing, or tend to procrastinate.

The key to writing anything is making yourself feel like it.

We’re not masochists, here. Or if we are, that’s a separate thing! Most of the writers I work with have a complete manuscript before they approach me. It might be full of holes, or need substantial rewriting, but they’ve actually done the writing of the first draft.

I like working with writers who’ve finished a draft, because then I know that they know it’s not super-easy to write a book. My experience is that the ones who write the most, with the least self-flagellation, approach writing with self-compassion.

They help themselves get to the project on a regular basis, and to keep getting to it even when it gets complicated.

Just because you don’t feel like it doesn’t mean it can wait.

Writers know that to get to the end, they have to keep going. If you’ve published a book, or even read this post on project management principles for writing a book, or this one on writing more by starting small, or this one on getting published, you’ll know that writing the first draft is only part of what a writer does on any given story or book. It’s not even the first task! But it’s the most important one. Without a first draft, you can’t do the other necessaries.

You might be thinking, “Surely experienced writers don’t say, “If I feel like it” about working on their books!”

Yes, they do. I said it yesterday. I write a lot, and I don’t always feel like it. I would say I feel like it about 10% of the time. So I use certain interventions.

3 clever interventions to make you feel like writing:

1.            Remember that action comes first

Only what you do matters, not what you think (e.g., about how life will be when you have written the book / story / etc., or when you’re in tip-top physical condition). If you want to get in shape, you have to get regular exercise and take some care in what you eat. The actions required for writing are different, but they’re still actions. Thinking about writing and actually writing are two different things.

2.            Lay out your tools

Writing has a few tools—a computer, or a pen and paper. A chair. A desk or table. Sometimes other stuff. Here’s the list of stuff I’m using to write my current novel’s first draft:

  • 100 index cards
  • a stack of lined looseleaf paper
  • A bunch of handwritten notes, also on looseleaf paper
  • two books (Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker and Mastering Plot Twists by Jane K. Cleland), where I’m doing the exercises to help generate a stronger plot. I’m more of a pantser with fiction but it hasn’t been serving me well.
  • 7-10 library books on mental asylums, electricity, and the history of medicine (don’t ask)
  • pen, pencil, eraser
(It’s a two-step process)

Laying out my tools is a two-step process, because writing makes me nervous a lot of the time. That’s why I don’t usually feel like it. It’s pretty normal. I teach writing, I’m in writing groups online, I write a LOT for work, and I know a lot of writers, so trust me on that–it’s normal to feel nervous or weird when you sit down to write, or even think about sitting down to write.

A great way to avoid this nervous feeling is to pretend that I have a colleague—basically, I’m two people. One of them, the administrator, sets out the tools with zero nerves or interest. Just gets the stuff out of its spot and puts it on the table.

About fifteen minutes later the OTHER person (still me), the writer, puts the kettle on, sets the timer for 30-60 minutes, sits down with a cup of tea, looks through the tools, then does something.

The “something” doesn’t have to be what we might think of as “writing.” Not every stage of writing is actually stringing sentences together. Sometimes it’s looking at an idea from every side, sometimes it’s research, sometimes it’s reading and fixing stuff already written. Sometimes it’s writing new stuff. Your writing self will know what to do when they sit down. Maybe immediately, maybe not. But if you never sit down, forget about it.

Yesterday morning, after employing these first two interventions, I sat down and wrote scene cards (one of my first-draft processes) sketching out the plot of my work-in-progress from its midpoint to the climax. I mean, that’s no small cheese. That’s quite a feat. I feel very good about that. It took me less than 30 minutes. I got to tick off an item on my “to do” list. And they’re solid ideas. I like them and I know the next step, which always makes it easier to get back to the table after “the administrator” lays out the tools.

3.            Be prepared for discomfort

Yes, you may get frustrated. It would be weird if you didn’t. That is life. It happens at bus stops and in cafeterias and at sporting events and even when watching TV. One of the traits of humans it that we get frustrated. It happens with home improvement projects and learning the piano and … well, you get the picture. It’s definitely going to happen with writing.

Discomfort never killed anybody. As writer Joyce Carol Oates said in an interview:

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. … I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Paris Review Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978

Part of preparing for discomfort could be looking at your life. What do you do a lot of that’s very easy for you? What do you do a lot of that’s hard? If there’s an imbalance (more easy than hard), you might need to set that right. Here’s one idea on YouTube, a 14-minute animated video called “How I tricked my brain to like doing hard things.”

You could try this dopamine detox to make complex tasks easier to approach. Why not? If you do, drop me a line through the contact form and let me know how it goes!


Caution signs: When to stop querying!

Have you been querying for a while and not getting any results? If you’re new to the business of book publishing, you might not be aware that literary agents (and acquisitions editors at publishing houses) are facing an unprecedented tsunami of writing. Along with that, the operational model for traditional publishing is as screwy as it gets, and there are a ton of problems. 

What’s so different about now?

  • The sheer volume of manuscripts being pitched to agents and acquisitions editors is rising every year as more people write, some of them boomers who have retired and now have more time, some of whom took up writing during the pandemic, some of whom would have been writers no matter when they lived.
  • Querying an agent costs nothing but time. There’s no barrier to sending out a query letter.
  • That would be okay, except that most writers query before their work is publishable.
  • There’s a lot of misinformation and delusional thinking about what it takes to get a novel published traditionally. 
  • Many writers are not researching adequately before they pitch to agents. 
  • [On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know some very good writers who have given up. They write novels but don’t want to self-publish, so those manuscripts sit in a drawer. Nobody feels good about it.]
  • The querying system is ridiculous at such high volumes. Non-fiction has a more streamlined system, with the submission of a book proposal to test “proof of concept”–quicker to read; easier to see if the writer is professional about what’s required.
  • Judgments about fiction are highly subjective. So even a great novel, one your agent or editor loves and works hard for, can go unsold.
  • The publishing industry (now the Big Four, since Penguin Random House bought Simon & Schuster), are big businesses that keep merging and conglomerizing (is that a word?), cutting editorial staff, resulting in fewer people able to make decisions about whether to purchase a manuscript. 
  • The norm for business communication in publishing is not to respond. That intensifies the soul-crushing aspect and makes it hard to know whether your work is even getting seen.
  • Plus in the last 18 months, there’s been a pandemic. New York was hit hard and an already overwhelmed profession (agents & editors) had their lives turned upside down.

OK, so what can you do?

What you do depends on where you are at with your writing project. 

If your novel isn’t finished, don’t query.

If you’ve completed a draft but have yet to get feedback, don’t query.

If you’ve gotten feedback but haven’t acted on it, don’t query.

If you’re sure your novel works but don’t know who publishes that type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works and you have some publishers in mind but haven’t studied which agents represent your type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, but don’t have a strong query package (letter, synopsis, first 10-50 pages), don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, have a strong query package, have researched agents, and know they’re open to submissions…query!

If you don’t hear back, don’t take it personally. Traditional publishing is a fragmented, screwy, strange business, but it’s full of people who love books. Everyone I know in the industry is running as fast as they can. 

Improve your chances of publication by doing the work, doing your research, and approaching the business only when you have done all the work that comes AFTER you write the book.


What are my book’s chances?

What are my book’s chances?

The question writers need answered

Recently, one of the novice writers I worked with (we did chapter-by-chapter editorial coaching through an entire draft of his novel) asked me to rate his chances of getting the book accepted by an agent or publisher, on a scale of 0 to 5. Five would mean I thought it “very likely,” and zero would mean I thought it had “no chance in hell.”  

Why there’s no answer

It’s a reasonable question, in some ways. But it’s impossible to answer because of the nature of the publishing industry. Even if I reread the novel again in its entirety (rather than chapter by chapter), I wouldn’t want to give a number from 0-5.

I can’t give a number from one to five on a book’s chances of publication, because those chances depend on a whole bunch of factors, some of which are beyond the writer’s control. 

The factors within the writer’s control:

  • understanding who their reader is (this particular novel was middle grade fiction)
  • making sure the story’s complexity and stakes are interesting enough for their readership–neither too complex nor too simple 
  • making the novel the strongest possible version of itself
  • knowing what the ‘comparable titles’ are so they can pitch the publishers and agents most likely to buy it
  • writing a description of the story that sparks deep interest
  • being aware that traditional publishing is an extremely tough, lengthy and competitive process
  • being prepared to spend time researching, querying, and waiting to hear back

The factors outside the writer’s control:

  • whether agents think they can sell the book to publishers
  • whether publishers think they can sell the book to readers

Unfortunately, the factors outside the writer’s control are the ones that dictate whether the book will be picked up by an agent or a publisher. 

How to work with things within your control:

If we look at the list of things under the writer’s control, they take some work. Over the course of my 10-month exchange with that writer I saw him really improve issues around the prose and scene dynamics–dialogue tags, showing vs. telling, adverbs, head-hopping (POV shifts), passive voice, distancing language–many of the things that would make an agent or publisher say no immediately. 

 What I didn’t know was whether and how thoroughly this writer had applied the big-picture suggestions I made from time to time: if the concept was as honed  and “high interest” as he could make it, if the premise was clear and interesting, if the stakes and complexity were on par with books his readership loves, if the cause-and-effect chain was strong, if the protagonist had internal conflict and growth as well as the external quest, if the emotional complexity in later packets had been woven in throughout in her POV… all that stuff.   If he had wrestled with all those big-picture suggestions and made changes accordingly, he’d be in a good position to start querying.  

If he hadn’t, he needed to go back and do those things first. (And that’s just one  or maybe two bullet points in the list of factors within the writer’s control–numbers 2 and 3,) He’d still need to do the following four bullet points before he’d be in a good position to start querying. 

The takeaway:

I’d love to see this writer’s book get out there and I thought he told a good story. But if you’re in a similar position and wondering if you’re book’s ready, remember that the amount of work it takes to get traditionally published is almost as much work as it takes to write the book, just a different kind of work.

 That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead! It just means you should be prepared to commit yourself wholeheartedly.


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