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. 

Vivisection

If you watch a writer in a coffee shop, you won’t be particularly impressed by her work. You might not even notice that she’s working. The external act of writing is a mundane thing. It is quiet, often deathly so.

ten fingers tapping

long sighs and silent swearing

insomnia cure

You have to slice a writer in half to reveal the invisible truth.

Writing is sudden bursts of brilliance racing ahead with yellow-jersey speed while you labor to catch up with tricycle typing fingers.

It’s a magnificent ache and pointless pursuit sandwich smothered in what-the-hell-was-I-thinking sauce.

It’s creation and destruction. Hope and despair. Love and love and more love.

And death. Lots of death.

It’s making friends and enemies. Then making enemies of friends with a press of the delete button.

It’s a whisper where a shout should be and a shout where the story is yelling at you to whisper.

Writing shrieks like that child screaming for another cookie. It cries like that old man who used to come every Sunday with his wife but now sits alone.

Writing is an empty balloon where your brain should be. It’s a world on the tip of your tongue. It’s a thunderstorm and a desert, a song and an empty stage.

It’s walls everywhere you turn…

You want to jump off a bridge. Wait…a bridge. Yes!

…and inspiration when you least expect it.

Writing is the reason “argh!” is a word.

Your wrists hurt, your head hurts, your heart hurts. You want to throw the computer across the room. You want to marry it.

Writing is a beautiful violence.

But you wouldn’t know it by watching a writer in a coffee shop.

ten fingers tapping

paradox of perfect calm

she is building worlds

 

 

 

 

DON’T PANIC

Writing fiction can make you crazy.

Here’s how.

Step One – Over the course of your next three lifetimes, visit a few thousand publishing-related blogs and read every nugget of writerly wisdom you can find. Pay particular attention to literary agents’ blogs. They’re jam-packed with practical tips, such as:

“If your novel includes a prologue, you’re obviously a demon from the pit of hell. I don’t represent demons. At this time.”

“Don’t even think of misspelling the word query. Seriously, stop thinking about it. Have you stopped thinking about it? I didn’t think so. Please go away.”

“Backstory in a novel is like back hair on a competitive swimmer. It slows you down. And it’s totally gross. Three words: laser hair removal.”

Step Two – Look up published authors’ websites. Then read about their writing journeys and routines, where you’ll discover inspirational gems like these:

“I write an average of twelve million words before breakfast. Then I go for a 30-mile run and save a beached whale or two before lunch. Well, on my off days.”

“I sold my very first book. I wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on cocktail napkins while distracted by a lounge singer crooning Neil Diamond songs. It was a story about cannibal vampire monkeys. No one had written a story about cannibal vampire monkeys yet, so it became a bestseller. My next book is about cannibal vampire orangutans.”

“I wrote 97 novels before landing an agent. That 98th novel is the charm, writer friends. Just hang on until the 98th. Be encouraged!”

Step Three – Read every book you possibly can on writing.* Here are some of my favorites (I might have gotten the titles wrong):

Writing Adverbally for Fun and Profit

The First-Time Author’s 127-Step Guide to Probably Getting Published

I Wrote a Bestselling Novel. That Qualifies Me As a Writing Teacher. Buy This Book.

Step Four – Meet regularly with fellow writers at a trendy coffee shop to talk about your works-in-progress. Pay close attention when crit group members say things like this:

“Your protagonist should wear a hat. I think your book would be ten times better if she wore a hat. A blue hat, with white, frilly trim. Or you can keep her hatless. But then your book will suck.”

“You totally need to rewrite chapter one. And all the other chapters, too. Except for chapter nine. That’s the one with the sex scene, right? That one is brilliant. Did you want me to return this copy of the manuscript? How about I just keep chapter nine.”

“I thought your story was lovely. I especially liked the part where the cannibal vampire monkeys attacked the…what? That wasn’t your story? Yours was about a woman who is reunited with her long lost sister? I must have misplaced that. Sorry. But have you read the one about the cannibal vampire monkeys? You should write one like that.”

Step Five – Go insane.

Everyone on the planet has writing advice. (Including me.) If you try to take it all in, your head will explode. If you try to apply everything you do manage to take in, your head will explode. If you stuff dynamite in your mouth and light it, your head will explode, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: DON’T PANIC.**

Study the craft. Read helpful blogposts and books. Listen to wise counsel. Then write. And write some more. And when you need a break? Take one. Don’t beat yourself up because your collection of writing advice isn’t complete. This isn’t Pokemon.

You have no reason to panic. You have plenty of time to follow your unique writing journey. Unless you’re on deadline. Or have sticks of dynamite in your mouth. Then you might want to panic at a level commensurate with the potential for serious injury. (Helpful hint: deadlines trump dynamite.)

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. (And take notes. Someday you’ll probably want to write about it on your blog. You know, to inspire other writers. Or make them insane.)

Happy writing, kids. And relax, okay?

 

*I should probably mention here that I’m writing a book for fiction writers, too. The working title is, “Your Muse Isn’t Real (And She’s Trying to Kill You).” It will be a small book filled with potentially helpful advice and an equal portion of possibly harmful advice. You’ve been warned.

**The title of this post is offered in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, who could have penned just those two words and I would still call him a favorite author. However, he didn’t stop at two. He wrote a few more. Many of them were quite well organized. You should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again.