Imagine a room somewhere, a hotel conference center perhaps, full of 46 professional types who have flown in to commiserate with their esteemed peers. They preen and sip coffee as they eyeball each other’s name tags, casually dropping names while waxing eloquent and wistful about the lack of great stories out there.
They are literary agents. Professionals whose primary goal and purpose is to find and exploit (sell) publishable writing. And this conversation is the same old blah blah blah that agents have been exchanging for decades.
Deep inside they nurse the fantasy that they alone, among everyone in the room, will find the Next Big Thing.
Just like us. As writers, we aspire to Next Big Thing status, too.
But there is one thing they won’t readily admit. On the contrary, often their brassy chutzpah smacks of the diametric opposite of this one unspeakable thing. And that is…
Nobody knows anything.
Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and dozens of uncredited screenplay buff-ups at a hundred grand a week) said it most famously in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (highly recommended, by the way, even for novelists).
He was referring to the studio system in Hollywood. The in-your-face truth of that statement, as genius truisms do, quickly went viral to apply to novels and short stories and pretty much anything else in the writing realm.
Nobody knows anything.
Back to that gathering of agents.
You can almost smell the hubris in the air competing with the scent of bourbon and Donald Maass’s cologne. There are enough credits here, some of them bestsellers you’ve heard of, most of which you haven’t, to fill a wing at Borders.
Borders, by the way, didn’t know, either.
The number here – 46 – is telling and apropos, for our purposes. Imagine now that each and every one of them was once offered the opportunity to represent a novel entitled The Help by a then unknown author named Kathryn Stockett.
And that all of them in that room turned it down.
You don’t have to imagine it… it happened (though I doubt they’ve gathered in one place to fess up). Forty-six professional agents said “no” to Kathryn Stockett and The Help.
Because, despite their own certainty that they did, they didn’t know.
Forty-six professionals who declared that they did know, at least where that particular book was concerned. They were served the most significant home run dream shot of their career, and they passed.
As regrets go, this is another flavor of Home Run. It would be interesting to hear how some of them rationalize this one away. Hubris has a funny take on that sometimes.
Sure, a cynic could successfully argue that nobody bats a thousand.
We writers already know that one.
In baseball you’re in the All-Star game if you fail only seven out of ten times at bat. Not the point.
From Kathryn Stockett’s perspective, she believed she had failed, struck out swinging, 46 out of her first 46 at bats in this business.
Imagine if she had packed it in right there. If she believed she knew, based on this evidence, that her novel wasn’t good enough.
It was that 47th swing that ended up counting for something. And still counting, well beyond the many dozens of millions of copies sold thus far.
Publishers, by the way, don’t know either.
They are out there swinging, too, just like us.
They are in the Home Run business, and they may likely throw anything that smacks of a single or a double under the bus. Unless you know someone at the senior level (which is why you absolutely need one of those agents who doesn’t really know), your project lands on the desk of a newly-graduated MFA who is absolutely terrified of taking anything up the elevator that might not fly at that altitude, resulting in a black mark on their budding career scorecard.
Certainly, those first-reader MFAs know less than the people upstairs, who, by the way, still don’t really know.
This not knowing, by the way, is a fact to which they (readers, agents and editors) will, in a moment of transparency, admit to. What they are less likely to own is the fact that, while perhaps not knowing a bestseller when they read one in manuscript form, they don’t really know if a manuscript won’t sell, either.
Though admittedly, they do often come a lot closer to knowing on that count. Because, unlike upside potential, there are standards and benchmarks for failure.
Then again, they still don’t know. Four words: Fifty Shades of Grey.
Millions of readers claim to know the writing in that novel is bad. Statistics expose this belief as questionable, while proving that bad and good is always just an opinion.
The criteria for getting published is all over the place. Everybody knows that.
But nobody knows when lightning will strike, and what we will make of it when it does.
So what are we, the writers who don’t know either, to do with this?
We should cling to hope, that’s what. Hope that is directly proportionate to effort and perseverance.
And, we cling to the certainty that our first line of satisfaction and reward is our own bliss at the process of disappearing into the stories we write. That is something we can know.
We can know this, too: we have tools and criteria and standards within reach – a bar to strive for – based on certain principles that, like gravity and death and taxes and yet another U-2 tour, are almost always a sure thing.
You need to accept that you just don’t know. And then get back to it.
Unless you aren’t out there with a finger pointing to the sky. Then you know, absolutely, that lightning won’t strike you.
We all have the opportunity to submit our story for the 47th time.
And, to tweak it up between that 46th and 47th submission.
The goal isn’t to find someone out there who knows.
It’ll never happen.
The closest you’ll come, on both the rejection and acceptance fronts, is someone who thinks they know. Which is both curse and blessing.
The goal is to craft a work of fiction that you believe, in your heart, aligns with principles and story physics, so that it has the best possible shot at knocking the right person at the right time off of their righteous chair.
You may not know if it’s good enough, but like those agents and editors, you can come very close to knowing when it’s not. And from there, hope is fortified by not quitting, not settling, until you are peace with that certainty.
Then you can stand in the storm with your foil-wrapped finger pointing skyward, waiting for fate and the Laws of Literary Attraction to light you up.
Do you think you know your story is good enough? Or that it isn’t?
Would you like to find out? Or at least get a professional second opinion on that verdict? To add an understanding of WHY to your knowing?
Maybe you don’t know after all.
Because it’s what you don’t know that dictates your outcome. And because, by definition, we can’t know that which we do not know, this process becomes an odds-improving step in the right direction.
I don’t know, either. But where your story is concerned, I can tell you why someone out there might think they do.