Not many writers are happy, Emily Dickenson-like, to write copiously without anyone ever reading a word. And with the occasional writer breaking through to near rock star status, writing the right book could be like winning the lottery. So how do you achieve that kind of literary success?
I have no idea.
What I do know, from years of knocking my head uselessly against brick walls trying to get published, is what not to do. Here’re some pointers.
1) Look at what’s trending and write [INSERT GENRE HERE].
This is a terrible way to start. By the time you’ve heard about it, the trend is already on the decline, and by the time you actually finish the damn thing to shop to agents, it’ll definitely be over. Having gotten a good chunk through a memoir (my “Running With Scissors”), a young YA fantasy novel (my “Harry Potter”), and a literary novel (my “Bel Canto”), I can say that it’s a waste of your time and whoever has to suffer through your proposal.
2) Take rejections personally.
Yup, that ‘no’ sucks. There’s no ‘A’ for effort, and no partial check for a manuscript someone only likes the first fifty pages of. The joys of rejection have three main phases:
Stage 1: I Suck.
They hate me. I’m a horrible writer. A horrible person. I should have listened to [INSERT AUTHORITY FIGURE HERE] and gone into Engineering. At least I’d have a retirement plan.
Stage 2: Magical Thinking.
They didn’t like it? Don’t they know they just passed on the next Harry Potter? This is way better than anything J.K. Rowling wrote. They must not have read my Bigfoot sex scene.
Stage 3: Quietly Firing the Actors You Hired for the Movie Version.
3) Think that a request for a partial or full manuscript means you can start shopping for your dream house on Realtor.com.Hey, first give yourself a huge pat on the back for making it through the slush pile. The first request for a partial made me lie down on the floor, delirious with joy. Now maybe you’ll sail through seamlessly to agent+book deal, I’ve heard that happens, but then I’ve also heard that if you stand in front of a mirror and chant “Bloody Mary” three times, a terrifying ghost will appear.
Pin your favorite dream homes to your wall but if you want a shortcut to actually affording that down payment, re-think the Engineering degree. Seriously, salaries start at six figures.
4) Don’t spend time on your query letter and BCC hundreds of agents because that’s more time efficient (for you).
After all, you just spent a year, or more, writing your novel – the magnificence of that achievement speaks for itself. And why should you take the time to actually learn your proposed agent or editor’s ‘name’ or follow ‘submission guidelines.’ You’re here to break the rules baby!
Truth is if you don’t take the time, no one else will either. It’s like showing up to a job interview in a wife-beater and stained jeans. That’s not to say you only need to query one agent at time, but if they say no attachments, no attachments. If they say ‘send an author photo of you standing on your head eating Spaghettios’, they mean it.
5) Endlessly perfect that REALLY important paragraph.
You have this visual, I’m sure. A writer sitting in a quiet room, preferably with a view of the Thames (or an attic in Paris), leisurely thinking through each and every syllable until the sentence, or paragraph, reaches literary perfection.
This is a great approach if you only have one novel in you and are independently wealthy. The reality is more like this: you burn your eyeballs out trying to accrue your daily wordcount the way World of Warcraft players accrue honor points and oh yeah, the rent is due.
Time is not on your side and it takes a lot of it to get through the first draft of your novel. Add to that the interruptions of daily life – double if you’re working full-time – and that one paragraph could set you back a good year (or more).
Get the bones down, then re-vise. And for god’s sake, resist, at all times, the temptation to insert Thesaurus words because they’re longer and more obscure. A house is a house, not an abode, or an edifice, or a commorancy.
6) Appreciate the interruptions.
Writing is a lonely business – you spend a lot of time in front of a screen, or in your head, and it’s easy to get lost there. It’s important to stay connected to actual people, and think about someone who isn’t imaginary for a change. Wash the dishes. Do the laundry. Go out for coffee with your spouse or friend.
Publishing is also a helluva ride, so you need to keep your posse close. They’re the ones who coax you off the floor after a rejection and tell you to take the trash out when you’re sure you’ve written the next Twilight. It’s life that feeds the writing, and writing that feeds the life, but too much of one or the other throws everything out of whack.
And oh, if you’re reading this and want to be a writer, stop. Because you really should be working on your wordcount.