Robert Grudin, in his lovely book, Time and the Art of Living, encourages writers to not be discouraged by, among other things, “editors who discard literary proposals because, ‘That is not what people are reading these days.’ Writers who suffer from this intimidating illusion would do well to remember the following:”
“The published writing of a given era, no matter how comprehensive it may seem to be, is generally based on shared assumptions, and therefore suffers from common weaknesses.
“The surface of the human condition, vexed and driven by change, incessantly demands new patterns of art.
“While the reading public and those who purvey to it may seem to dominate the present, the future is the domain of sincere and persistent individuals.”
In my coaching work, I have found that persistence is the primary indicator of whether someone will be successful in writing. Writing is a craft that can be learned. There are rules to writing, and they are not difficult to learn, though practicing and mastering them can take time. But once you learn the rules, you know how to write. Yes, there are some people for whom writing and words just seem to come naturally. We often say those people are talented. But there are many others of us who can be equally successful in writing simply by learning the craft, applying hard work and, yes, being persistent.
It’s easy to become discouraged. Rejection slips; family and friends who say things like, “When are you going to get a real job” (a friend actually once said those very words to me); finding time to write amid the demands of daily life. It all adds up to tremendous pressure, and many would-be writers give up their dreams.
But those who don’t, those who persist despite the odds, they are the ones who are most likely to succeed. If you don’t keep sending out your short stories or poems to literary magazines, or you give up pitching nonfiction story ideas to editors, or you get discouraged because you haven’t found an agent yet who loves your novel as much as you do, if you don’t finish the novel in the first place, failure is guaranteed. Because you have removed opportunity for success.
You know the old joke about the guy who prays every day to win the lottery? After years of praying, one day God, exasperated, says to him, “Harry, give me a chance and buy a ticket!”
So, writers, go buy a ticket.
Paula Davis, the book editor at commitmentnow.com, recently asked me to answer some questions on publishing for the site. My responses will be posted there soon, but I thought I'd also share what I wrote on my own blog, since there are so many writers hoping to find publication success in this increasingly difficult book market.
1. What special challenges face fiction writers?
Fiction is hard to sell because publishers are looking for work that will do well commercially – meaning they will make money by publishing it. For that reason, they are more apt to stick with authors who are already successfully selling books or celebrities who are already known. New or emerging writers are untested, so publishers are less likely to take a chance. Occasionally there is that rare, outstanding novel written by a new author, but they are few and far between, sadly. I recommend that new novelists try to get their work accepted by a smaller regional or genre-specific press rather than go for the big publishers in New York. Also, publishers expect a novel to be agented – they won’t look at anything that isn’t represented by an agent these days.
2. If someone is writing a fiction book for the first time, what should they do that will motivate agents and publishers to take a look at their book?
First, make sure it’s a good story - well-written with finely developed characters, great description, conflict, and rising tension that is well-paced. If you have a cracking good manuscript that has been vetted by other writers and an editor or two, then you’re ready to look for an agent. Not before. If you haven’t written before, learn the craft: take classes, attend workshops and conferences, and absorb as much as you can about the business of book publishing. You have to do the work first.
3. What, in your opinion, are the biggest mistakes fiction writers make?
Not doing the work first. Too many people try to write a novel without any understanding of how to do it and what goes into it.
4. If someone is writing a children's book, what challenges do they face in getting it published, and what can they do to overcome these challenges?
First, read children’s books so that you are intimately familiar with the genre. Then join an organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There are chapters all over the country and they offer ongoing workshops on how to write for publication.
5. Does writing a blog help an author get their book published? If so, what tips can you offer so they can maximize the benefits of their blog?
Yes, with a caveat. I had a young woman ask me this recently at a writers conference. If you are writing fiction, first, you have to write the book. Once it’s published, writing a blog can be very helpful, along with having a website and using other social media to promote it. If you are a nonfiction author, you can use a blog (and website, etc.) to build a platform so that a publisher might be more likely to consider publishing your book. For example, say you’re writing a book on how to survive a cancer diagnosis, a first-person account. You might use a blog to talk about the things you learned, using information from the book. You might offer to speak to groups, and establish yourself as an expert on the topic. If you can show that, say, 10,000 people follow your blog or your tweets on Twitter, that’s evidence that you can sell your work and that people want to hear what you have to say.
6. What gets an agent's attention? What scares an agent away? Why is it so hard to get an agent to begin with?
Agents have to be convinced that the book you’ve written can be sold to a publisher. They look at what’s hot in the various genres, and they consider the commercial appeal of the story, not to mention your writing skill. Agents are individuals with varying tastes and interests. What one agent won’t look at may be another’s cup of tea. The key is to not get discouraged. If you’ve done all the things I mentioned above, just keep sending out your work. And if an agent is kind enough to offer feedback on your work, strongly consider it.
7. Can an author who self-publishes make any money on their book? What tips do you have for those who want to self-publish, but hope their book makes a bit of money?
Self-published authors can, and many do, make money with their books. But self-publishing is not for everyone, and one has to be savvy about not only the publishing process but marketing and promotion as well. The longest chapter in my new book is on self-publishing.
8. What opportunities are available for nonfiction writers?
Many! I think the publishing shifts of the past few years – most notably the move to the Internet by most of our information sources – offer opportunities for publication that didn’t exist before. If you’re a good writer and know how to pitch your work, there are many opportunities for freelancing. If you write nonfiction books, the sky’s the limit.
9. How can a writer use Facebook and Twitter to promote their work and perhaps get their book published?
Facebook and Twitter have to be a part of a comprehensive marketing plan for any books you publish, and can be critical to building that ever-elusive thing called a “platform” – essentially what you are known for – which can help you sell yourself and your work to a publisher. But you have to learn about them and use them judiciously. Several chapters in my book cover social media.
11. What are your best tips for those who dream of publishing a book, but keep hitting brick walls?
Keep writing, every day if you can.
Improve your work – learn and revise.
Get feedback from other writers and editors.
Listen to the advice of those who know more than you.
Accept that your work will be rejected – over and over.
Don’t get discouraged.
If you find success, be grateful and “pay it forward” (with a nod to my friend - and fellow RedRoomer! - Catherine Ryan Hyde, who wrote the best-selling Pay It Forward)