Why I’m Not Yet Published

Last week, I met with some friends for one of our get-togethers. We all have busy lives, so when we can get together, we tend to spend hours talking. Invariably, it all turns to writing and books.

Invariably, it all turns to me. And why I’m not published yet.

I’ve been hearing this for quite some time, actually. It’s a familiar refrain, like “What could possibly go wrong?” from Top Gear. (I HATE YOU, BBC, I HATE YOU!) The problem (for me) is that I hear it not from other writers, but from my friends – and I love them, I really do – but my friends who do not write novels.

If you don’t write novels, you don’t know what it’s like.

I just finished Heather Sellers’ wonderful Chapter by Chapter (see last week’s post for more information). She addresses this problem in Chapter 25, “Writing is Revising,” and Chapter 26, “Just Want to be Done.”

Here’s the problem:  Agents receive 50+ queries before they wake up in the morning. Every. Single. Day. And when they sit down to read these queries, what they’re doing is looking for reasons to reject authors. They have literally thousands of manuscripts to choose from. They need to narrow the field. Some, they can toss right away:  wrong name, no name, not submitted properly, bad spelling and/or grammar, wrong genre. Some, they can’t reject right away because damn it, the author’s done the thing properly. So they have to read the first chapter or first five pages, or whatever they’ve requested. But guess what? They’re still looking for a reason to reject you. As a writer, your job is to never, ever give them that reason.

How? You revise. You rewrite. You do it over again. And again. And again.

Six years’ worth, if that’s what it bloody takes. Seven. Ten.

The other refrain I heard this past week, which I think I’ve heard before, is “Send it out already. It’s fine. It’s good enough. Besides, the agent and editor will fix whatever’s wrong with it – they’ll want you to make changes anyway, so who cares if it’s perfect or not? JUST SEND IT!”

NO!!!!

Here’s what Heather Sellers has to say about that:  “We have passages of brilliant writing. The plot holds together, basically, and there are some excellent moments in our book. Isn’t that enough? Can’t someone else take care of the other stuff? Tables of contents, indexes, chapter titles, fixing the weaker scenes – aren’t there people who do that? Well, yes. Of course there are. They’re called writers. That would be you.”

She then goes on to say:

“Just as no one loves your kids as much as you do, not even the greatest editor on the planet will care as much about your book, its details, its perfection, its publication, its success, as you do. You must be your own editor before you send the book out of your house and into the world.”

See, here’s the problem. The competition to be published has never been greater. It used to be that a nobody with a decent idea but no clue how to write it could be taken under the wing of an agent or editor, and guided through the process. Not anymore. You’re not an Idea Person. You’re the writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, advocate, and RE-WRITER, all rolled into one person. And you’re expected to know your competition. And you’re not competing just against the published authors – you’re competing against those just like you, who aren’t published yet, but desperately want to be. The question is, what are YOU willing to do to make your manuscript stand out?

Again, Sellers:  “Many writers believe – secretly or openly – that someone else will do this . . . ‘Won’t my agent get it ready for publication?’ They want that editor who exists in their mind, that fantasy person from yesteryear who is so devoted to their genius and their book that she puts everything on hold to help them fix it.

“It just doesn’t work that way.

“Not every writer passively expects someone else to do part of his work; there are plenty of writers who do everything they can to their books and then some. And after they’ve set aside the project for a while, they return to it and do even more to improve the book. You are competing with these authors.”

That’s me. That writer. The one doing everything to improve my book and then some.

It is not someone else’s job to fix my book. It is not someone else’s job to write my book. It is not someone else’s job to figure out why the plot’s not working quite the way I want it to. That is my job. And my job isn’t finished until I have figured those things out. And if you write novels, your job isn’t finished, either. Not until that book is the best it can possibly be. As Sellers says, this is a profession. Agents and editors are professionals. They will look much more favorably on your book – your baby – if you present yourself as a professional, too. And by making your book the absolute best it can be – no matter how long that takes – you’re showing that you are a professional. That you take publishing, and writing, and your manuscript, seriously. That you take them and their time seriously.

And THAT is why I am not yet published.

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Falling Back in Love . . . With Your Manuscript

I have an entire collection of books about writing. I usually go shopping when I’m having a specific issue with one of my works in progress and I don’t quite know how to fix it. Books often give me a new perspective on the problem – and the solution.

This week, I picked up Chapter After Chapter:  Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Deams by Heather Sellers. Sellers wrote the textbook we used for the creative writing course I taught a year ago, so I knew she was a good author. But this book is MILES beyond that textbook!

Heather’s a writer herself, and she doesn’t mince words when it comes to the problems writers face. She writes a lot like I do, in fact, and I’m loving this book for its voice and style and perspective. So far, my favorite chapter is Chapter 7, in which she talks about the fact that when we’re working on a novel, we have to be surrounded by that novel all the time. We need to sleep and breathe it. If we’re at the dentist, we should be thinking about character motivation. If we’re waiting at a train crossing, we can be making voice notes (or real notes, if you prefer that) as to what to do next or solutions to a problem you’ve been having. Or, as she puts it:

“You must allow the book you’re writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren’t literally putting words on paper in your studio.”

She then compares the relationship you have with your book to a new relationship with another person. In the beginning, it’s great! You’re in luuuuv with each other. It’s fresh and exciting and you can’t wait to show them off to everyone. But then – maybe you move in together. And you notice that they leave the cap off the toothpaste, or they snore at night. Little things begin to annoy you. You begin to wonder if you can get past the annoyances and rekindle the romance. The book, she says, is the same thing. Those first days or weeks are amazing; you’re getting to know the characters, you’re excited about how easily the scenes are coming. But then . . . “You may feel shackled. You feel like you chose the wrong book. The book has flaws. The flaws annoy the heck out of you. The book gets gassy! It’s terrible – there are parts of the book that stink. You get sick of the book.”

This chapter resonated so much with me, I can’t even tell you.

Like most writers, I’ve had that rush of first love. When the words come SO easily, and the scenes flow, and the characters are talking to you and everything that comes out on paper is solid gold. This book is Going Places! And so are you!

THAT’S when the book has you in its grasp. Its hooks are in you. You think about it 24/7. When I’m in the car, I’m thinking about it. When I’m on my walk, I’m thinking about it. When I’m trying to sleep, I’m thinking about it. When I’m with other people – or teaching – or eating – I’m thinking about The Book. Yes. Been there. Done that. It’s a wonderful heady rush.

Then reality sets in. The scenes stop coming so easily. You have to do research. You miss a day or two of writing. For me, I may lose writing time when I have to grade papers or oversee graduate testing. And then . . . . you lose your connection to the characters. The era. The storyline.

I’m facing this problem right now. I set Nicky aside for far too long. He’s still there; I can hear him in my head sometimes. But I’ve had so many other issues to attend to, that his book hasn’t be in the forefront of my life, 24/7, for quite some time. I HATE THAT. I love my books and my characters and I need to be with them. Sometimes, I need to be with them more than I need to be with ‘real’ people.

So what do you do?

Sellers has a great exercise for this, which I’m going to be working on this weekend:  “Make a list of twenty assignments – things that trigger you to think about some aspect of your book. Then place each assignment on its own card and stick one card in your glove box, your day planner, desk drawer, lunch box, mirror.” If you’re just starting on the book, these might be fairly broad. If you’re into it and/or making revisions, they’ll be a lot more specific.

Mine (so far) are going to include things like:

  • Research “shell shock” in World War I soldiers. Symptoms? What can I use?
  • Think about how to finish out that scene where Nicky nearly gets into a wreck on the curve and H catches him there.
  • How does he find out that his dad was murdered? Need to sort that out. Overhear something? A mistake on H’s part? Is that something he can think about while he’s waiting out the revenuers that one night?
  • Order the Winfield Free Press from the KS State Historical Society on microfilm so I can read it, too.

Later, Sellers recommends another exercise:  “In one sitting, create 100 index cards of tasks for completing this project (your book). Tiny, micro-movements – truly ten-minute chunks. . . .” This is positioning, another thing I used to do, and need to do again for Nicky. In positioning, you ready yourself for the next day’s writing time by making sure all your ducks are in a row. Do you have the research you need ready and to hand? Do you have a scene (or two or three) that you’ve asked your subconscious to start working on, so you can sit down and write them? Positioning, Sellers says, is like a map forward. If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you expect to get there? Dumb luck, sure, but that can only take us so far. Even a pantser such as myself can do this one! I love this idea, because it gives me a set goal for the next day. Simply spend a few minutes, a few hours before you need to write, positioning yourself. Then, when your writing time comes, you hit the ground running. Since I love to-do lists, this last one is my cup of tea. 🙂

So hopefully some of these will help you jump-start that project that might be languishing on your hard drive.

(ETA:  I tried this today. I spent an amazing 2 hours at the coffee shop, and wrote 7 pages, single-spaced, plus edited a couple of other scenes. IT CAN WORK!!!) 🙂

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/chapter-after-chapter-heather-sellers/1015562851?ean=9781582976174 – a link to the book Chapter by Chapter.

http://heathersellers.com/site/index.html – Heather Sellers’ website.