Writing Is Belief

Every novel begins as an idea you believe in. Usually, a really good idea. Humility (real or manufactured: pick one) might keep you from calling it brilliant, but you’ve had good ideas before and this one is a thousand times better than all of those.

This is the book idea that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: a successful* author.

So you sit down (or stand at your standing desk if you’re an overachiever with strong calf muscles) and start writing.

First sentence? Perfect. So incredibly perfect. (Nearly perfect. You’ll fix it later.) First paragraph. Amazing. (Well, mostly. Except for the abundance of adverbs.) First chapter? Nailed it. (The whole thing will have to go when you later realize it’s just backstory.)

Now, on to chapter two.

Chapter two. Chapter…two. Two. Two. Chapter Two. Two is a funny word, isn’t it. Why isn’t it pronounced “twoah”? Oh, right. You’re supposed to be writing.

You can do this. You believe in your book idea. You believe in the story that’s beginning to appear on the page. And you believe in yourself (the force is still strong with you).

You press on.

Chapters three through ten are remarkably decent. Now you’re getting somewhere. This is the story the idea wanted you to write.

Chapter eleven. Hmm…can you just skip chapter eleven? Because it’s not working.

No worries. Chapter twelve is great. Celebrate-with-a-glass-of-wine great. Good thing, too, because thirteen through nineteen are eminently forgettable.

But chapter 20. So. Very. Good. Only. Separating. Words. With. Periods. Gives. It. Proper. Honor. Of course, the new ideas you introduced in chapter 20 will require substantial revision to the rest of the novel, but it’s such a good chapter, the pain will be worth it.

Six months later, you’ve done it. Finished the book that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who finishes things.

Wait, no. A successful author. That’s what you meant, right?

Well, maybe. At the moment, you’re not entirely sure you can write. At. All. Oh, you can finish a story. Yes. You are the champion of finishing stories. And yes, now that you think of it, there are some good moments. But is the plot compelling enough? Do the characters seem believable? Is the pacing sharp or sluggish?

Yes. No. Maybe. Sort of. Probably not. You don’t know.

So you revise. And you revise some more. You get feedback and it breaks your heart and it buoys your spirit and then it breaks your heart again. Three months later you come to a stopping place because there has to be a stopping place, not because you recognize it as a stopping place, and suddenly you’re the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who edits the work until it’s the best it can be.

Wait. What about the whole “successful” thing?

You’re still not sure about that. The story is better now. Maybe not quite as brilliant as the idea, but much improved from the first draft.

At least you hope it is. Is it?

You need to find more believers. Beta readers? Sure. Why not? Their feedback and support can be invaluable. But what you really want is the Holy Grail of believers: an agent.

So you craft a perfect query** and release it into the wild.

Five minutes later, a rejection appears. Five minutes! Oops, your mistake. That agent isn’t taking queries at the moment.

In the days that follow, more rejections appear, this time from agents who are accepting queries. They just don’t think your book is right for them. Hmm…this isn’t going the way you’d hoped.

Thirty rejections later…

Wait, did you just say “thirty rejections later”? Thirty? What does that mean?

Well, it means one of two things: You’re either 30 rejections closer to being the writer you always knew you were meant to be, or you’re 30 rejections farther away from that dream.

Which will you believe?

Pick one.

 

*We all define success differently. To some, it might mean simply getting published. To others, it might mean handing a freshly-printed copy of the book to a once-disbelieving spouse. And to still others (those selfish authors without an ounce of actual humility), it might mean selling no less than One Million Copies in the first six months. The definition of success doesn’t matter here – just the belief that feeds it.

**The “perfect query” is a mythical beast, like Bigfoot. I’m just using it here as shorthand for “the best query you can come up with after spending more hours studying the art of query writing than you spent writing the first draft of your novel.”

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.