If you’ve done any research at all about the fine craft that is novel writing, you are bound to have come across the usual clichés: Believe in yourself, keep writing, never give up… followed by a picture of some kitten hanging from a tree limb. It’s safe, sound advice. It is total bulls***, of course, because at the end of the day not one of the ten clichés I’m about to regurgitate here can, in any way, assure you a book deal, but nobody’s going to get offended by optimism, right? That’s why every author or blogger, including myself, won’t hesitate to tell you “you can do it!” whenever we have nothing more insightful or meaningful to offer.
Hard work and persistence clichés are the ultimate copout for any blog. Instead of giving you practical, tangible, or (dare I say) honest advice about your book, your writing abilities, or your voice, we occasional dole out little morsels of “wisdom” that are as interchangeable with writing as they are with starting a unicorn petting zoo. “Reach for the stars!” and that kind of nonsense. Well, my advice is that reaching for the stars isn’t going to get you squat when it comes to landing an agent or publisher. “Being persistent” is only going to make you annoying if you can’t actually write or if you don’t have a marketable idea. And all that crap about hard work? You’re not the only one doing it so, when all is said and done, that probably won’t amount to anything either.
But I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Of course I like useless clichés as much as the next person. They make me feel as warm and cuddly as if I’m taking a sensual fragrance bath full of kittens and furbies and Elmo from “Sesame Street”. So instead of flogging everyone’s spirits by relieving myself on all that well-intended advice that is pervasive across the web, I thought I would weigh in on the 5 Best Pieces of Advice I Have Received As a Writer in 2012.
1. Hard Work is NOT Enough: When I was growing up, all handsome and ambitious and naïve, I used to think that if I just took the time to sit down and write my novel, everything else would just fall into place. Well, now I’ve written three and I still haven’t found a traditional publisher for one of them. You would think my books are like that haunted videotape from the movie “The Ring” the way agents seem to avoid reading my material. It’s been an eye-opening process. Now, I’m a few years older, no less ambitious, and at least like…2.5x as handsome, but I am considerably less naïve than I once was. Let me give you the advice that no one gave me when I set out to do this: Publishing your first novel is about the hardest thing that any individual can hope to accomplish in this economy, and you HAVE TO HAVE A MARKETABLE IDEA. Period. If you cannot convince someone that your book can sell, you do not have a shot. It’s that simple. Don’t write the book you know you can write. Write the book you know you can sell.
2. Your Other Credentials Do Not Matter: One thing that I always assumed would help me sell my first novel, The Notice, was the fact that I have several degrees in international relations and I have been studying/researching Bosnia & Herzegovina for several years. Growing up, I had always heard the old cliché “Write what you know” and I did just that. When I finished my book and started writing query letters, I was sure to mention all my prestigious degrees, hoping that my academic background would lend credibility to the book. Nope. Nobody cared. In fact, an agent who later edited my query letter entirely took all of that information out. Nobody has given a rat’s ass about how well-researched my book is; some idiot who has never read anything about Bosnia could spontaneously decide to write a novel about Bosnia tomorrow and fill its plot with zombies and vampires and he would have a 100% better chance of selling his book than I will ever have of selling The Notice. If you don’t think that stings me a little bit, please write me a letter and let me tell you all about it.
3. The Publishing Industry Is Not Morally Obligated To Tell Tragic Stories: I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the most surprising things I discovered at my first writers conference this year was just how many people are trying to sell books about their battles with cancer or heart disease or the loss of a loved one. My intent has never been to slight the hardships that those people have endured and if you are reading this blog and if you are writing or have written such a book, know that my heart goes out to you. But you must understand that there is no obligation within the publishing industry to market your story, because unfortunately those are stories that have been told countless times and have been told well. If writing is a hobby or a therapeutic tool to help you cope with grief, I wholeheartedly endorse that, but do not assume that anyone else will care about your tale, no matter how tragic, unless it is SUPERBLY told. And it is my opinion that superbly telling such a story requires an amount of personal and existential insight that is beyond most people. I’m only trying to be honest with you and save you the possibility of years of disappointment, because I could not believe how many people I met at that conference were trying to sell those books and, let me tell you, they did not like hearing that their writing was awful.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Start Small: Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just try to get your foot in the door. Too many writers waste so much time trying to finagle their way into big publishing houses instead of starting with articles or short stories and finding local or regional places to get those published. Building your writing and publishing portfolio is the one proactive thing you can do to attract the attention of agents, editors, and larger publishers so that maybe that book you’ve written could find a home later. What’s more, you may find yourself assigned projects to write, which means you don’t even have to do any of that nasty “thinking” business yourself! Before you know it, ideas may be coming in left and right from external sources and that you may find bigger, better projects to pursue.
5. Stay Confident, Be Persistent, Be Consistent: I promised I was going to come back to some of those tried and true clichés, didn’t I? As I said before, not all clichés are bad ones, even the ones that get run into the ground by every blogger who was too lazy to think of anything original to say today (God knows I’ve been there). But “The CPC”, as I call it—confidence, persistence, consistency—is worth repeating time and time again, simply because of the other darker truths that I have outlined. The publishing industry is cruel and unfair. It is governed by politics just like everything else. If you watch “30 Rock”, which I do, you may think of yourself as Jack Donaghy (I definitely do), when in fact everyone else in the publishing world sees you as Kenneth, the country bumpkin page from Kentucky who can barely string two consonants together without a long southern drawl (always made me wonder how in the Hell Kenneth got accepted into the page program at NBC in the first place…). If you cannot stay confident in the face of certain disappointment, and if you cannot be persistent in the face of inevitable rejection, and consistent when everyone is telling you to change this and this and this and this, then this is not a road you want to travel, my friend.
But, yes, there will be friends along the way and, even if you’re the worst writer in history, you have a friend in me, because I feel your pain.
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury