Two Paths

The path to writing well and the path to publication are two different paths.

I’ll explain in a second. But before I begin, let’s dispense with the “good writing is subjective” conversation. Can we just work from the assumption that everyone in the room understands that my definition of “writing well” and yours differ at least in small ways, and perhaps also in big ways? We can? Cool.

Four Truths About the Path to Writing Well

1. Writing well takes time. Period. There are no shortcuts to writing well.

2. Each person’s journey to writing well is unique. A select few writers get there (relatively) quickly. Most don’t. You are probably in the latter group. Don’t beat yourself up about that.

3. You can study writing until you’re blue in the face (where you’ll quickly learn that clichés like this are verboten), but there is no substitute for simply writing. I recently tweeted this: “You don’t find your writing voice by reading about writing. You find it by writing.” If you take nothing else from this post, take that.

4. Writing resources (craft books, blogs, conferences, fortune cookies) can make the path more interesting. They can inspire a healthy curiosity and ignite an interest in pursuing excellence. They can teach you plotting and character arcs and other helpful stuff. But they can also frustrate your writing life. If you’re constantly reading about how to write, you’re not writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not growing as a writer. Here’s a tip: If you’re buying more writing books than novels, you’re probably doing it wrong. Reading is your best writing teacher and writing is your homework. Do your homework.

The path to writing well doesn’t always line up with the path to publication. Sometimes the two paths are parallel. Sometimes they’re perpendicular. Sometimes they’re the very same line. This is one of the reasons why your head hurts.

Four Separate Truths About the Path to Publication

1. The path to publication takes time. Almost always. Except when it doesn’t. For some, it appears to happen suddenly. Like “overnight” suddenly. Usually the “overnight” can be measured in years. Usually.

2. Each person’s path to publication is unique. Stop comparing yours to everyone else’s. Especially that guy in your writing group who got an agent last month – the one whose writing truly sucks. Compared to yours, I mean.

3. There is no substitute for studying all you can about getting published. Read the agent blogs and the “how to get published” books. Go to conferences. Listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before, whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing. Heed (most of) this advice.

4. The pursuit of publication will frustrate your writing life. Seriously. Every moment you spend in that pursuit is a moment you don’t spend writing. (Or reading about writing, for that matter.) Along the path to publication you will be angry and depressed. You will be confused. You will be exhausted. You will question your dream. More than once. But if you’re patient and persistent, the path will matter. It will give shape to your dream. Be patient and persistent, okay?

Some final advice: if you haven’t been on the path to writing well for long, please don’t start down the path to publication. Not yet. Just write for a while. Maybe a long while. Write until you find your voice. Then and only then, step onto the second path and try not to stumble.

Oh, and when you finally get published? Well, there’s another path. The marketing path. We’ll talk about that another time.

Meanwhile, wear comfortable shoes.

Go Away Publishing Industry. I’m Writing.

It’s entirely possible that what you know about the publishing industry is killing your chances of being published.

I’m not referring to perky and/or snarky agents* who tease you forward with a one-in-a-thousand opportunity they call “querying,” or clueless editors* who wouldn’t know brilliant literature if it bit them in the Franzen. I’m not talking about the endless hoops writers have to jump through whether chasing the graying hope of traditional publishing success or the shiny silver promise of self-published glory. I’m not talking about the dearth of bookstores or the preponderance of ebooks or the utter unpredictability of bestsellers.

I’m talking about the thing that lies beneath all these other things.

I’m talking about information.

It’s ancient news that technology and the Internet Age (social media in particular) have changed and are still changing the publishing game. Not long ago the industry was the privileged child of Monopoly and Aggravation. Now it’s the bastard son of Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Trivial Pursuit. Imperfect board game analogy aside, the biggest difference between then and now is what we know (or can know, provided we have great web-surfing skills).

Logic seems to tilt in a writer’s favor here: Information leads to knowledge. Knowledge leads to power. Ergo, writers who know lots of stuff are powerful.

Yes.

And no.

Yes. We know more. Lots more. We know who stirs the waters and who tries to still them. We know where to find writing advice that makes a difference. We know what it takes to self-publish a book. We know the kinds of bribes agents definitely can’t accept because that would be unethical but as long as you brought that bottle of wine to the conference, sure, I’ll take it.

We know a lot because most of what there is to know is available on the Internet. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. What knowledge really affords us is opportunity. Power comes from knowing how to take advantage of that opportunity.

And don’t forget that with opportunity comes responsibility. Try querying an agent without first studying her query guidelines and see what happens. (No. Don’t. I hate to see a writer cry.)

And no. When everyone has access to the same information, none of us is more powerful than the next. In many ways, it’s even harder to get noticed, now that everyone with a computer, an iPad, a smart phone, or a heartbeat thinks he can write a novel.

About that novel…

Did you forget about your novel? You’re not alone. Most writers I know struggle to stay focused on their story, and it’s not just external distractions (children, spouses, Kardashians) that have them wedged between the rock of industry knowledge and the hard place of writing.

The abundance of publishing information (and easy access to it) may well be the number one cause of writer’s block. When writers should be listening to the protagonist’s plea for conflict, instead they’re worrying about whether or not the book is marketable. Or they’re praying for the perfect agent. Or they’re suffering the metaphorical flop-sweat of query-fear.

But there’s an easy solution. Right? All you need is one of those writing programs that can go full-screen with the click of a button. Or a legal pad and a pen. And maybe a writing spot without Internet access.

No distractions.

Apart from all that you know (and don’t yet know) about the publishing industry. You know a lot, remember?

This isn’t going to get easier. The publishing industry is shedding more and more of its clothes every day. It’s all there for everyone to see. Not quite naked, but still NSFW. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.

Except that to write well, that’s exactly what you must do.

The publishing industry needs to go away while you write.

Maybe you write in short bursts between games of solitaire. Maybe you prefer day-long marathons. Whatever your mechanics, you must not let the publishing industry intrude on the mystery of storytelling. While you write, the industry no longer exists. It’s just you and your characters and all the things they do.

When you’re not writing (I don’t mean in the pause between sentences), go crazy on the Internet. Read the agent blogs, the writer blogs, the industry blogs. Surf and search and study and worry all you want. Become powerful.

But when you’re writing? Let it go.

Your characters have no idea there is such a thing as a publishing industry. Don’t screw up their story by distracting them with it.

 

*I actually have lots of love for agents and editors. This was just me playing with a popular notion for the sake of an interesting sentence. 

7 Words You Probably Shouldn’t Use in Your Query

So you’re ready to query an agent. Good for you. I’m not going to tell you how to do that. There are plenty of excellent articles elsewhere on this subject. (Google it.) But I do have a smattering of advice, as indicated ever so subtly by the title of this post as well as the redundant sentence that follows this one.

Here, now, are seven words you probably shouldn’t include in your query.

Brilliant – I know. Your novel is brilliant. In fact, it’s so incredibly brilliant, Harper Lee decided not to publish a second novel because there was no way she could compete with your novel’s brilliance. Yes, this statement demands suspension of disbelief regarding time travel (among other things), but how is that any less outrageous than the claim that your novel is the next To Kill a Mockingbird? Brilliant is something others say about you, not something you say about yourself.

Literary – I’ll probably step on a few Birkenstocked toes here, but literary isn’t a genre; it’s an appraisal. Yes, yes, I know. Bookshops and book review sites and oodles of other places use “Literary” just like they use Science Fiction, Romance and Mystery – as a label to identify a certain category of books. I understand why they do this. Laziness. Okay, not just that. They also use it because calling something Literary lets us know how Very Important it is. (It also signals to booksellers, “Caution, Low Sales Ahead Unless Oprah Says Otherwise.”) Use the query to tell about your book, not to make a case that you’re a Very Important Author. That’s for the agent to decide anyway.

Bestseller – No, it’s not (unless you’ve already sold a few hundred thousand e-books on Amazon and you’re just toying with agents by querying them when you really don’t need their help anyway). Nor is your book certain to be a bestseller. Don’t say it. Please don’t say it. I hope it is a bestseller. I really do. But you don’t know that. No one does until it happens.

One-of-a-kind – Here’s the thing – every book (apart from those that are plagiarized) is “one-of-a-kind.” Of course, some are more one-of-a-kinder than others and I suspect that’s why you’re tempted to use this or similar words (like Fresh, New and Unique). You want the agent to know you’re Not Like Everyone Else. If your book really is Not Like Everyone Else’s, the agent will discover this. And then she’ll tell you. (See a trend here?)

Potteresque –  Or Twilightical. Or DaVinciCodial. There’s a proper time and place for mentioning books that are similar to the one you’ve written, but if you name-drop the obvious gazillion-sellers, you risk being query-dropped into the virtual trash bin. What do you do if your book actually is Potteresque? Let the plot description reveal that. Then make sure you have a good lawyer on retainer. Especially if your protagonist is a wizard named Jerry Kotter.

Fitzenwhacker – “What, you don’t know that word? Really? But it’s critically important to my story about the Grlabbbn uprising. If I can’t reference the Fitzenwhacker, how will agents know why young Pllrhssk is chosen to be the new Jjarrb?” Look, your fantasy or science fiction masterwork can have all the created words you want (fair warning: if you have too many, readers will revolt), but don’t invoke them in your query unless absolutely necessary and only then if context makes it perfectly clear what the hell you’re talking about.

Rouge – “But what if my book is about a makeup artist.” Oh, sure. Yes, then you can use rouge. I’m just including this word because some of you thought you’d written “rogue.” There’s nothing funnier than reading a query about a protagonist who is in love with the dashingly handsome rouge. (I do love a quality rouge, don’t you?) Double-check your spelling before hitting send. And also make sure the words you use are the words you actually meant to use.

Query on my wayward son.