I’ve actually been sitting on this article for several months now, but I never published it because it came from a pretty dark place. This piece was sort of like Sauron’s ring for me. I was content to let it sit in the shadows and never speak of it and at one point I even considered destroying it. How did it come into being? Well, I was pretty damn disheartened when I could not find an agent or publisher for my first book The Notice. I spent months slaving away on that book and every person who read it told me it was wonderful. Maybe that was part of the problem. My mother cried like four times while reading it. I was 99% certain I had a bestseller in my hands and you can probably guess what happened: Not one agent wanted to read it. I could have written the next Crime & Punishment but it was irrelevant—seemingly because it featured ghosts and Eastern European ethnic tension instead of vampires and/or zombies.
I was defeated. I was dejected. I thought about giving up.
Instead, I moved on to Naked in Korea and The Last Cup and wrote this article as an outlet for my frustrations. For the purposes of including it on my website, I’ve cleaned up its content quite a bit. I’ve humbled my language and padded out the content. It’s long, but also funny and, well, mostly TRUE. I wouldn’t be posting this if I didn’t feel like readers could benefit from it and I want you all to take my advice with a grain of salt. The 4 points I’m about to lay out will not be 100% true for all of you but they ARE all obstacles that every indie writer must be prepared to face. You’ve been warned.
4 Soul-Crushing Realities Indie Writers Must Learn to Face
January 26th, 2012: When deciding that you want to become a writer, you’re probably sure of one thing: All you have to do is actually sit down and write your book and you will be famous in at least a week—two weeks TOPS. Within a month, you will be playing epic games of squash with a surprisingly spry Stephen King and drinking champagne out of J.K. Rowling’s navel at author parties while Daft Punk spin the turntables. DAFT PUNK! You have probably known for years that this is the kind of life that is out there for you; all you have to do is put in the time and wait for your membership card.
So you write your first novel—an epic fantasy tale that ends up totaling 300,000 words spanning 38 chapters of convoluted history and realms so awesome that Tolkien himself visits you in a dream just to high-five you like Maverick from Top Gun (come to think of it…he even looked an awful lot like Tom Cruise, but you’re still almost positive it was Tolkien).
Okay, you may have overshot that first attempt at a novel. A little too ambitious, right? No takers? Fine. You can scale it back. You can reel this in. You broke the book up into two separate novels, cut out tons of fluff and crafted a perfectly good standalone masterpiece that would set up the next great fantasy series for all ages. You shipped it off to agents and publishers and waited for the letters to come rolling in. You eagerly imagined clichés like “breath-taking”, “stunning”, and “a landmark achievement” being hurled in your direction in such volume you’d have to swim through the praise like Scrooge McDuck in coins.
But, of course, nothing happened. Now it’s time to reevaluate your perception of the publishing world with 4 soul-crushing realities.
1. Agents/Publishers Don’t ALWAYS Know Quality When They See It: First, I see a need to qualify that the definition of “quality” here refers to “this is a best-seller” and not “this is a very well-written book”. The distinction is important because this piece is about to refer to Stephanie Meyer as a—grimace—“quality writer” and any literary/English scholars who might be reading this are going to s*** a collective brick at that statement. No, the point is not that literary agents are idiots. Agents are usually pretty adept at spotting decent writing. Of course, they’re better at spotting lousy writing. But the truth is that agents have no choice but to seek the next best-seller despite the fact that, sadly, predicting popular trends when it comes to literature is kind of like guessing which pigeon in a tree is suddenly going to drop a bomb in your convertible.
If you don’t believe that, just ask J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Both women are two of the highest-grossing authors of our time, but both had to shop their books around almost as much as I did before someone finally rolled the dice on a multi-billion-dollar franchise. It makes you wonder how many other billion-dollar franchises never found that one agent who took a chance on something others considered “risky” or “derivative”. The problem is not necessarily with the quality of your work; the problem is that, as a result of being hopelessly jaded by the industry, any given agent may be going into your book with a number of ill-conceived assumptions, including that you have an awful idea, your characters are stereotypes, your grammar is horrendous, your story is cliché, and YOU are an imbecile who scribbled half of your chapters on Arby’s napkins. And (unfortunately) 95% of what they receive probably fits that bill.
Even more frustrating is that in this global age of communication—with wealthy foreign markets on the rise and endless volumes of earthshaking ideas constantly at our fingertips—you would think that there ought to be a hungry mass of people out there looking to give almost any topic a chance. And that is perfectly true—if you’re wealthy. The fact is that there is a market for everything, because the only thing that needs to happen for a market to be born is for someone like Oprah Winfrey to say “Buy this book.” Suddenly, a billion people will buy “Mutant Caveman Summer Vacation Attack Squad!” tomorrow and dub you the next J.D. Salinger. The first time you picked up “The Kite Runner”, was your first thought “Holy crap! A book about children in Afghanistan? I’ve been waiting for this novel my whole life! This book is so marketable.” Of course not. Now there’s a movie and probably a prequel in the works: The Kite Maker.
2. “Write What You Know” Isn’t a Free Pass to a Book Deal: There may be no more “tried and true” cliché in the whole publishing world than this little gem that you will find in exactly 100% of books offering advice on how to write that first great novel. It seems like sage advice. If you’re writing some kind of medical thriller, you had damn well better know your science and medicine—just ask Dr. Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain and Congo and Jurassic Park. Clearly his medical degree gave him expertise in pissed-off apes, space viruses, and making giant dinosaurs. He was an expert!
The trick here is that writing about what you know can only get you so far if part of what you know doesn’t include how to write a freaking marketable novel! You could be writing your fourth book on a topic in which you have two degrees, years of fairly immersive personal experience, and a prior history of conducted research, and you still may not get a single person in the industry to read a word of what you cranked out.
When it comes to writing a novel, writing about what you know only works if A) you are a vampire or zombie, B) already marginally famous or rich, or C) you lived through something absolutely horrendous and the literary world kind of feels like they owe it to you. Basically, if your book tells the story of your CPR-certified, firefighting, Vietnam-veteran, Holocaust-survivor uncle who died on 9/11 after plummeting from one of the Trade Centers like Hans Gruber while strangling a terrorist and saving a family of kittens, you are set for life. Honest, how many of you are thinking back through your family trees right now searching for an obscure relative who nearly fits that bill? I know I would. The real problem is that, in writing a book, you may only discover how agonizingly boring you are.
3. Being Professional Is Not a Surefire Way to Get Published: Another piece of absolutely garbage advice that you’re going to hear from experts who write books about how to get published is that professionalism is the key to getting published. Okay, that’s being unfair. Don’t get me wrong; being professional can’t hurt your chances as much as being insanely unprofessional. But if being professional or respectable were the only way to get published, you wouldn’t have books by Paris Hilton and the Kardashians lining shelves across the country. The fact is that you can do absolutely everything right and get rejected 30 out of 30 times because your book is not about Justin Bieber or what it’s like having 23 children.
It bears repeating that literary agents ARE NOT IDIOTS, but they can be tremendously unfair and cynical. I don’t feel like that’s a secret anyone is rushing to cover up. Deep Throat in a trench coat didn’t whisper that to me between cars in a shadowy parking complex through a haze of cigarette smoke. Agents are oftentimes overworked, depressing people who are terrified of taking a genuine risk on the high-concept idea of a first-time writer. That’s bad for us, but probably not bad for business, strictly speaking. But I once read an advice column from an agent who proudly said he rejected “any book that came with a prologue” and (GRAPHIC VISUAL ALERT) my testicles slammed into each other like the moon colliding with the Earth. That’s like saying, “I don’t adopt orphans if I know where they come from”.
How dare you, Mr. Indie Author, for having a prologue! Your audacity ASTOUNDS ME.
4. “At Least My Friends and Family Will Read It” – If you think this is a given, you should probably go ahead and click this link. Go on, I promise it’s safe. This can be a very painful truth but your friends are probably lying to you when they say that the idea for your book sounds “really interesting”. Your friends are lying to you and maybe even looking you in the eyes while they do it. Some might even have their hand awkwardly positioned on your inner thigh. Why? Because they love you. That’s right, your friends know how much this means to you and they care enough about the hours you put into your book that they are absolutely scared s***less by the idea of dashing your hope or giving you any gleaming of the reality-check you so desperately need in order to find some semblance of a life and make up for the hundreds of days you may have wasted researching your “masterwork” or “manifesto”. Ay, caramba!
Of course, another possibility is that your closest friends don’t care at all that you wrote a book because society now takes for granted what were once considered lofty accomplishments. It used to be considered bragging rights to know someone who had published a book or made a video or recorded a song, but nowadays even your roommate’s little sister is dropping an entire album’s worth of nasally Rhianna covers on her Myspace page. Thanks to pages like YouTube, every other jackass in your apartment building has probably put out at least one video that scored over a million hits which means your own friends can no longer be held responsible for separating the very real achievements of people they know from the superficial ones of those they don’t.
Besides, your friends and family are the last people on Earth who you’re going to trick into buying your crappy novel. They’ve read your clumsy Facebook notes about how awesome the new Ke$ha album is. They’ve seen you mercilessly confuse words like “their”, “there”, and “they’re” in your Facebook statuses or Tweets with such animosity that you could almost be brought before a UN criminal tribunal and accused of war crimes. Now you expect them to suffer 200 pages of garbage tinged with all the inane banter, political or religious rhetoric, shallow social commentary, and terrible jokes with which you annoy them on a daily basis?? If your closest friend randomly comes up to you tomorrow and punches you as hard as he can in the face, you are obligated to let it go. You probably earned it.
If you’re reading this, I’m not saying your writing is automatically that awful. I’m just speaking in hyperbole. But I guarantee that at least one person who happens across this entry is writing a book his or her friends and family will hate. If I hurt someone’s feelings with this post, here’s a nice cartoon I found on the Internet to make it all better