- Your writing is unremarkable. You may have worked hard to craft a good story, followed all the rules – trimming unnecessary prepositional phrases, chopping adverbs, replacing passive verbs with active verbs – but the result is indistinguishable from any of a hundred other novels the agent has reviewed in the past month. Solution: Find your writer’s voice and pray it’s a good one. A writer’s voice is that unique stamp that sets his or her words apart from others. There’s no simple (or universal) definition for “writer’s voice,” but typically it will be revealed in such things as an author’s word choice, writing rhythm, and that intangible thing called “tone” or “color.” Best way to find your voice? Write. A lot. If you have a unique voice hidden in there somewhere, it will eventually appear. And if not? You might be one of the lucky ones who gets an agent anyway and maybe even ends up selling a ton of books. But just in case, be prepared for rejection. Sorry. But that’s just how it goes.
- Your story is unoriginal. What’s that? There is no original story? In a broad sense, you’re right. But there are infinite variations to the basic plots that give structure to stories. How you handle the familiar is what will set you apart from the rest of the wannabes. Here’s a tip: Create characters with depth and dimension. Flawed, richly-textured characters provide you with all kinds of plot opportunities.
- Your story has no conflict. Guess what? If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. If there are no obstacles to overcome, no one cares what happens to your protagonist, least of all your protagonist himself. Throw challenges at your characters from page one to the very last page. If your protagonist isn’t moving toward something, agents (and, therefore, readers in general) will grow impatient with the story and give up on it.
- You can’t spell “query.” Will this really prompt a Pass letter? Well, it depends on the agent. And whether or not she’s had her coffee. And how many bad queries she’s seen before yours appears in the queue. And whether or not your opening line is brilliant enough to make her forget your spelling error. Point is – if you want to increase your chances of being considered, don’t make this stupid mistake. And by “this stupid mistake” I mean, do a spell check on everything you submit to an agent. And by “spell check” I mean review what you’ve written multiple times by reading it aloud – don’t count on Microsoft Word to know you meant “guilt” when you accidentally typed “quilt.”
- You think you’re the next Stephen King. Persistence and confidence are good things, but when they cross the line into arrogance, you are at risk of becoming the punch line for a #queryfail joke. Seriously, if you’re really the best thing since Hemingway, your writing will do the shouting for you.
- Your novel isn’t finished. Yeah. I know. This seems like a no-brainer. But some of you are trying to apply the non-fiction rules (which allow writers to submit a proposal for an as-yet-unfinished work) to fiction. Don’t do that. Just finish your novel. By the way, your novel isn’t finished when you first type “The end.” It’s then that you must put on the editor’s hat, revising, re-shaping, and improving the story until it’s really the best work you can do. If you send a first draft you’re just asking for a Pass letter.
- You haven’t done your research. If you’re pitching a novel about a sex-crazed wizard who takes over the world one kinky tryst at a time to an agent who only reps Amish Christian fiction, you’re an idiot. Okay, that was harsh. But please, friends, take the time to review what the agents represent – and also, what they’re currently looking for (the latter is typically a smaller subset of the former). In most cases, everything you need to know about an agent’s interests and current needs can be found at their website. Don’t be the guy who shows up at the formal dinner party wearing a toga because you didn’t look at the invitation carefully enough.
- You’ve sent out too many poor queries. Don’t send a single query until you understand what a good one looks like. (There are a ton of websites out there with examples of good queries. Guess where you’ll find some of the best info on how to write a query? Yup. At literary agents’ websites.) I know you’re anxious, but there is no benefit to “getting there first” if what you’re submitting is less than great. You can actually blow your chance at a second (or third) chance by flooding agents with bad queries. I know that seems unfair, but keep in mind there are hundreds of other authors vying for the same limited “eye time” agents can give to queries. Learn from others’ query mistakes as much as possible before you have to learn from your own.
- You can’t handle rejection. If this is you, well, you probably should look for a new dream. Because if you pursue a dream of being published, you’re going to experience rejection. If not by an agent, then by a publisher. If not by a publisher, then by a reader. Someone, somewhere down the line will think your writing sucks. It’s okay. Really. Every writer experiences this. Every. One. Submit. Feel the sting of rejection. Wipe your tears. Glean what you can from the experience. Then get back to the task at hand.
- You’re simply not meant to have one. Yeah, this is a bit of a downer. But it’s just reality. You may never get an agent. You may never publish a book. Does that mean you should stop trying? Maybe someday. But probably not today. However, if your only goal is “to be published,” you might be going about this all wrong. Oh, it’s perfectly fine to hang that goal in front of you (just as it’s fine to self-publish if that’s your dream) – but don’t miss the writing journey along the way, okay? It’s a good journey.
Thomas Edison is famously known for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Some folks hovering in the shadows of the publishing industry have glommed onto this quote as a rallying cry for aspiring authors. “It’s not about talent – it’s about hard work,” they say. Well, they don’t actually say “it’s not about talent,” but the implication of Edison’s statement when recklessly applied to creative genius is that anyone with even a penny’s worth of an idea can work hard enough to someday achieve their publishing goals.
Nope. Not true.
I’ll wait while you take a moment to quote examples of “no-talents” who have worked their way into successful publishing careers.
Done? Yeah, I hear you. We could easily turn a corner here and start talking about what “talent” is, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that even the “worst” published writers have something to offer the reading public. [Oh, and that Edison fellow? He didn’t actually invent the light bulb – he improved on other people’s work. His “inspiration” was about refinement and revision and re-invention. Sound familiar, writers?]
Edison’s quote has been so misused that I sometimes feel sorry for the light bulb. But did you know Edison had more to say about “genius”? Perhaps as clarification for his “1/99″ comment he allegedly said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”
Ah, yes. Now we’ve got something usable for aspiring authors. It’s gonna take work. This is no surprise to any of you who have been studying writing books and agenting blogs and attending conferences in search of publishing wisdom. Keep at it. A lot of hard work can make a good idea into a great one.
But (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) all the hard work in the world won’t turn an uninspired novel into an inspired one*. If your story is boring or unoriginal or badly written, if your idea (or your re-invention of someone else’s idea) isn’t the least bit interesting, your chances of being published are slim.
This isn’t the sort of message I like to deliver. I’d much prefer to say “all aspiring writers have an equal chance of getting published someday if they just work hard enough at it.” But that would be a lie.
I simply can’t downplay the importance of inspiration. Of a good idea. Of a great story. Of a compelling voice. Nor should you.
Do you have it? Do you have the inspiration or talent to set you apart from the rest? I don’t know. Maybe. (This is where you can be thankful for the role of subjectivity. One agent’s “I don’t see it” is another agent’s “you’ve got what it takes” when it comes to identifying inspired writing.)
However, let’s remember: Edison was no idiot. He was gifted with a highly capable brain. Likewise, some people have a natural gift for writing. (If you’re one of them, lots of folks secretly despise you. Oh, they don’t wish you harm. They’re just upset that God didn’t spread the inspiration a bit wider and feel it’s particularly unfair that through some processing error in the Brilliance Distribution Department you ended up with their share.) Every idea they exhale dances like Baryshnikov. Of course, if those folks never do a lick of work with that inspiration, they’re as unlikely to be published as those who are all work and no inspiration.
Which leads me to a suggested revision of Edison’s quote, specifically tuned for the writing community. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly impossible math, you might want to look away. Here goes:
“Finding success as a writer is 100 percent inspiration and 100 percent perspiration.”
Think about that for a moment. Actually, you know what? Think about it until my next post.
*Please note, I’m not saying you can’t find new inspiration for a novel in the process of working through it. I’m simply stating that any book that is completely void of inspiration is most likely unpublishable (by traditional means, anyway).
1. I’ll have to purchase a whole new wardrobe from somewhere other than Wal-Mart so people don’t accuse me of wearing my false modesty like a neon sign.
2. Jerry Bruckheimer will want to add explosions to the movie adaptation of my bittersweet love story.
3. I’ll be the guest who gets bumped from Letterman when his lovefest interview with Julia Roberts runs long.
4. Struggling authors will hold quarterly “Hate Stephen Parolini” days to coincide with the receipt of their royalty statements.
5. An interviewer will ask me questions like “Did you know you had written a bestseller?” and “What’s your secret to writing a bestseller?” over and over again until I finally lose the very patience that helped me to complete a novel in the first place and I’ll snark my response to her and ask “What’s your secret to asking such inane questions?” and then she’ll get all huffy and accuse me of calling her “insane” and when I correct her and say “No, the word was ‘inane’ and I was referring to the questions” she’ll get even huffier and yell “So are you calling me stupid?” to which I’ll reply, “Not, ‘stupid’ per se, but possibly ‘vocabulary-deprived’” and I might giggle a little at that but she’ll have already started swinging the microphone toward my head and when it lands with a dull thud against my skull I’ll fall limply to the ground (all the while, chiding myself for having fallen in collusion with an adverb) and wake up days later in the hospital with temporary memory loss and blindness that last just long enough for readers not to care about any subsequent books I might write.
6. I’ll have enough money to afford a new laptop. This will trigger a six-month season of writer’s block while my muse considers whether or not she wants to move from the old one.
7. People will ask me all kinds of questions about my writerly influences and quiz me about famous authors and their books and stuff. I can only get away with saying “I like Tender Is the Night even though it lacks the brilliance of The Great Gatsby and occasionally reads like Fitzgerald’s thinly-disguised memoir” so many times before people will realize just how under-read I am.
8. I’ll never be able to go to the grocery store again without being swarmed by adoring fans. Er…wait, I’m an author, not Robert Pattinson. No one knows what I look like. Cool.
9. Everyone I know will ask me “So, which character is based on me?” and when I offer a generic response they’ll be immediately disappointed that I didn’t say “the beautiful protagonist” and will think instead that they were the inspiration for the shrill, selfish, tramp and then they’ll stop talking to me. Which, I suppose, could give me inspiration for another character in my next book.
10. Oh, yeah. I have to write another book.
So, yeah. About the roaring silence.
Sometimes the best-laid plans…etc.
Life has sent a few (significant) unanticipated challenges and changes my way recently. And these things aren’t about to go away. So… I’ve had to make the difficult decision to re-direct my energies from this site to the Real Life Stuff.
I’m well aware that the way to build an online audience/platform is through regular, uninterrupted blog posts. And that just isn’t going to happen here. Not for a while. But rather than shutter everything and write it off as a fun three-month experiment, I’ve decided to leave the blog right here. When I have a writing window, I’ll finish one of the many posts waiting in the “drafts” folder and let you know about it through Twitter or Facebook. But… don’t hold your breath. (Well, you can if you want. Just don’t blame me when you expire.)
I’m not happy about this. I like it here. But you know how life works, right? Of course you do – because that’s what you’re writing about. Maybe one day you’ll read all about my current life challenges… in my novel.
Thanks for all your comments and kind words.
Live well. Write often.
See you… sometime.
[Note: Stephen is currently collecting data on what it’s like to experience a great deal of pain (for use in some future work of fiction, of course), so this post is gonna be short. He’s really counting on a couple of you providing the bulk of the post in the comments section. Bring on your wisdom.]
Okay, here’s the question of the day: How do you write a scene where a character experiences something you’ve never personally experienced? I mean things like shooting an innocent man. Jumping from a speeding car. Standing on stage in front of 100,000 adoring fans. Facing your greatest foe. Kissing someone who is not your spouse. Being told you have a terminal disease. Learning that your teenage daughter is pregnant.
Yeah. These aren’t little things. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of them. (If so, you have my sympathies. Particularly if you’ve done the whole dying thing.) But I want to know how you approach the situations you haven’t experienced. And I’m not just talking about how you calculate the number of times you roll on the dusty ground after leaping from the car. I’m talking about the entire experience – especially the emotions that accompany the drama.
Does the loss of a favorite pet give you enough familiarity with ache to write a believable scene about the loss of a lover or a friend? Does the bitterness you felt toward a co-worker who took the last donut give you enough raw material to write a scene about a man who discovers his employees have been stealing from him?
Okay, floor’s yours. Talk amongst yourselves. Tell me what you know.
[Swallows pain pills, climbs into bed, closes eyes. It’s called research, people.]