“Nobody knows anything.”
– William Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist
You are a writer. Which means you will hear the word “no.”
Frequently. Cruelly. Usually without explanation. Often without reason.
They will tell you no. And it will suck.
You may not hear anything at all. When that happens… it means no.
You are left to interpret the word “no.” To assign meaning. And this is the great abyss of writing. It has a slippery slope at its precipice. Once you fall into it, everything gets harder. You become part of the problem. The bottom of the pit is littered with the dreams of genuinely talented writers who heard and believed the word “no.”
But here’s the thing. When it comes to writing, “no” doesn’t mean “no” at all.
It means, “I don’t know.”
Even if they tell you what’s behind their “no,” they still don’t know. The wise writer listens, filters, applies, and moves on.
“I don’t know” is truer than “no.” It means more to you than “no.”
No is a lie. I don’t know is the absolute, take-it-to-the-bank truth.
And that, dear writer friends, it what sustains us when the abyss calls our name.
A friend of mine named Martha had a great concept for a provocative thriller, one that challenged religious paradigms and personalized our own response to the question of belief.
Great theme. Wonderful drama. High tension suspense. I loved it. Martha loved it.
Her critique group didn’t love it. No matter how Martha spun it for them – it was just a concept at this point – they wouldn’t gift her with an endorsement.
They said no.
They didn’t get it. They couldn’t see it. And they wouldn’t be swayed by Martha’s enthusiasm for it.
And so they said no.
Martha wrote it anyway. Thus avoiding the abyss.
They still said no. They didn’t get. They couldn’t see it. And they weren’t swayed by Martha’s execution of it.
But what they said really meant was this: they didn’t know. Either at the pitch stage, or the manuscript stage. They just didn’t know.
Martha recently pitched this story to a handful of agents at a writing conference. None of them said no. What they did say was: send us more.
Here’s the irony. The agents don’t know, either. The publishers they submit your work to won’t know.
Nobody knows anything.
Which is why, in this context, “no” means nothing other than I don’t know.
Because if what you’re writing is solid, if it meets the criteria for solid story architecture and dramatic resonance leading to thematic impact, someone along the path will say something other than “no.”
Getting them to do that is your job. Recognizing it when they see it is their job. And both jobs are as imprecise and subjective as any work on the planet.
You’re working to find that one person who counts who says something other than no.
Bef0re I sold my first novel I was a struggling screenwriter. I’d had an agent for nine years, and we’d had a couple of options and some success in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship competition, which hatches the occasional produced script (14 of them, in fact, like Mike Rich’s Finding Forrester, and, less frequently, a handful of viable careers… especially Mike Rich’s).
I wanted to turn one of my scripts into a novel. My agent said no.
I started it anyway. My agent said no again.
I finished the adaptation. My agent said “hmmm.” Totally forgot that she’d said no, but that’s fine, this isn’t about that.
She submitted the draft to four publishers. Three said no.
One said yes.
That publisher (Penguin-Putnam) threw some national advertising at it and propelled Darkness Bound onto the USA Today bestseller list for three weeks. A couple of hundred thousand copies and an open door for more novels going forward.
All leading toward a website called Storyfix and the book that it would become.
No meant I don’t know.
Even the publisher who said yes didn’t know. That’s the game we’re stuck with, this isn’t a sport in which an object either goes into the goal or it doesn’t.
Yes means: I think I know.
They’re not always right. But that’s the best we’ll get. Because once we hear yes, we’re pretty much done. What comes next has almost nothing to do with us.
We’ve reached the goal. The ball (or puck, your call) went into the net (or out of the park) this time.
Nobody knows anything when it comes to deciding which book is good, which will find a market, and which won’t. William Goldman said it first, and he’s right.
At least, at the level at which this game is played. Some manuscripts scream “amateur” so loudly you might as well stamp it on your cover page. That’s what this site is all about – avoiding that particular abyss.
Once your story and your execution is at a certain level… nobody knows.
And most of the time, because it’s their business, they say “no” instead of “I don’t know.” Saying “I don’t know” is career suicide for agents and editors. And so they say “no” instead.
Even when they think they know, they are often wrong.
Three of the editors who rejected Darkness Bound were wrong. One — the one who published it — wasn’t wrong.
Harry Potter was rejected nine times. The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 104 times. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times. Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 23 times. Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 18 times. Watership Down was rejected 38 times. M*A*S*H was rejected 17 times.
Chicken Soup for the Soul, which inspired dozens of spin-offs and more money than the White House spends on Air Force One catering, was rejected 140 times.
Those authors didn’t let no stop them.
They understood that “no” means “I don’t know.”
But they knew. In their heart. In the deepest crevice of their gray matter. These authors knew.
“Know” translates to “believe.”
The Only Way to Know
Notice how most of the books mentioned above were risky, freshly-minted concepts. A school for magic. A society of rabbits. Philosophical seagulls. Shenanigans in a military field hospital. Thinly masked pop psychology masquerading as commerical fiction.
Our stories are always delivered on two levels, from within two realms: the conceptual and the executional. (Don’t look that last word up, I take great liberties here… but you get my drift.)
The first can seduce you. The second will never betray you.
If your belief in your story – if knowing – is based on the appeal of your idea, and little else, then you will hear “no” until you wake up and smell the embalming fluid.
What begets belief most is an understanding and practice of craft, of storytelling principles and criteria.
Your heart will tell you if the soul of your story is a winner. But it’s your mind that knows. Because this is where craft resides. In your inner story architect, your inner fiction engineer.
The heart and the mind can yield a product that exceeds the sum of the parts. Make sure you employ both in your storytelling.
Will craft guarantee success? No.
Ah, there it is again.
But in this context, no doesn’t mean I don’t know. Because nothing guarantees anything in this business, unless your name is already on the A-list.
But it – craft – is your only shot. That much is certain.
Craft is what turns no into I don’t know when you hear it. Once spoken, they are speaking the truth: they really don’t know.
But you do know. The author is always the first to know. This is what keeps them from slipping into that dark abyss.
It is craft that allows you to know. And knowing is the imperative magic bullet of getting published.
Don’t submit your work until you know.
My new book on the subject comes out February from Writers Digest Books, see more about it here.