Novelists: The Data on “Normal”… And the Path to Extraordinary

They say that about two out of every 100 novels submitted to publishers actually get a contract.  Of those, a majority were submitted through established literary agencies, which changes the odds dramatically.

That’s good news and the bad news.  Because it means you need to get an agent – which you absolutely can – before that two percent probability kicks in. 

Without an agent, your odds are significantly lower.

Based on less scientific numbers (i.e., me talking to people), I’d say the number of projects accepted for representation by agents is about 1 in 25 of full manuscripts submitted.  But you need to realize that’s after they’ve heard pitches and read partials before they even consent to read a full manuscript… so the number goes to about 1 out of 100 (because they read full manuscripts for about 1 out of 4 of the projects they consent to review as a partial, at best; the bigger the agent, the lower those odds).

The net-net of that… for every novel that gets legitimately published, only one out of every 2000 novels written finds a publisher.  And of those that do, the vast majority will have gathered more than a few rejection slips along the way.

Those are pretty crappy odds.  But they are also reasonable, given what actually arrives in the inboxes of agents and publishing houses.  (The odds are even worse in the screenwriting trade, unless you have a close connection to the industry.)

Wouldn’t it be good to know why? 

And to be able to apply that knowledge toward your own projects, to fix what the professionals will so quickly and easily find lacking – the basis for rejection – before you hit the SEND button?

They won’t tell you, in detail, why they’re rejecting you.  But…

I can tell you why they will.  Or not. 

I really can.  Not just theoretically, but statistically, through the filter of my own experience as a story coach and author who is on his third agent, seventh writing book and sixth published novel.

I’ve read and analyzed 112 stories since April 1st of this year, as part of my evaluation service.  Now, before you tell me to get a life, I certainly haven’t read an entire novel or script every two to three days.  No, only about ten of these evals have been fully executed projects. 

Rather, the vast majority of these evaluations were submissions to my new affordable story physics-based analysis, which calls for the writer to answer some scary questions and submit a synopsis, from which I can pretty much tell if they have a solid shot at delivering a story that works, through their demonstrated awareness and application of essential story physics and where they stand relative to the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

I thought you might like to know what I see in these stories.

Specifically, and as trends and pitfalls.

And thus, why talented, well-intended writers are coming up short in the core areas that agents and authors are looking for. 

What’s interesting – and tragic – is that pretty much every client wasn’t even aware their story was weak in any given area, they were already well down the development road (some had even completed a draft or two).

And yet, there was almost always some area(s) of softness or weakness in the stories that would ultimately, almost certainly tank them.  Their investment of $100 is well placed, because I call these out, explain them, and offer alternatives and solutions to fix the problems, some of which call for an entire reboot.

How can this work? 

Because agents and editors are looking, first and foremost, for a great story.  Your writing, your stunningly beautiful sentences and your genius worldview, has very little to do with it (because writing can be fixed), which means the bones of a story can be exposed and analyzed against known criteria and benchmarks to access strength, potential and the presence of disease at the conceptual, thematic and structural levels.

I’d say half the stories have issues with dramatic tension

As in, not enough of it.

They aren’t putting their heroes into a situation that has them credibly pursuing a worthy goal, solving a challenging problem that absolutely needs a solution, or putting them in harm’s way, with a villain or antagonist in the mix.  Rather they have their heroes in an interesting situation (from the author’s perspective)… which isn’t enough.

I’d say the majority of the other half, those that do have a compelling dramatic question in place, aren’t unspooling it in the proper (or optimized) order.  They’ve mishandled the structure, especially the First Plot Point, which is the most important moment in a story.

Some stories – about 20 percent – jump the tracks from their original story onto a completely different story spine somewhere in the middle.  A few even completely abandoning their heroes and the opening conceptual context when – my guess is there were pantsing here – another idea presented itself.

About a third were self-destructing because they were passionately focused on an theme or issue, or a historical time and place, turning the narrative into a journalistic essay or historical travelogue with sociological tones… with weak or absolutely no tension or hero’s quest in the mix.

I’ve said it before, it bears repeating: great stories aren’t just about something… they’re about something happening The access to having a reader understand your thematic intentions resides in the consequences of the decisions, actions and dynamics of and between your characters, rather than the author’s projected agenda.

About two thirds suffered from episodic storytelling.  Stories that cover a lot of ground, showing the hero having many experiences, but without a forward-evolving connection to a core story or spine. 

About one in four had ideas, sometimes even expressed in a conceptual way (a good thing; half of these were ideas that weren’t conceptual, which is a deal-killer), that weren’t inherently compelling.  Which offers little potential for drama and tension (necessary), that were work-a-day normal and vanilla, with too little for a protagonist to do that a reader would find provocative or interesting. 

You can’t turn a bad idea or premise into a good story via good writing.  Like a chef, you need rich and tasty raw materials as the stuff of your main dish.

A few projects held huge potential, they had story physics and core competencies that covered nearly every base.  Even then, I found opportunities to suggest tweaks in structure or nuance that could make them even better.  Of the 112 stories, I’d say about 15 fell into this category.

Some writers had decent stories, but couldn’t express them clearly within the confines of a synopsis or answers to questions.  Which is a huge yellow flag.

Of the 112 stories, I’d say about 110 were projects that had a definite fix available, from some major tweaks to a full re-conceptualization and restructuring.

I found something worthy in all 115. 

I am, if nothing else, supportive and empathetic to the pursuit of storytelling and storytellers – I’ve been there, felt that – and I’m rooting for you from the first page.

And if this math seems to exceed 100 percent, that’s because many of these  projects had two of more of these weaknesses or symptoms screaming out at me.

Some writers will find this less than encouraging, but I didn’t create the math, it’s out there waiting for you already. 

What I have created is a way to mount a better, more empowered attack on these odds, through feedback from a professional that might just see things you can’t, don’t, or won’t.  From a guy who does this for a living, in addition to doing what you do as a writer of stories

If you’d like to see what this feedback looks like, click HERE

This author consented to share his Questionnaire answers, with my feedback, in the hope that others can see the upside.  Like most writers, he had a story he’d worked hard on, and believed was ready.  The news wasn’t particularly good, nor was it completely horrible… but in the end it was full of hope.  Because the story wasn’t dead, it was just in need of surgery and some new shoes.

He got it.  He’s going to fix his story.  And he’s more excited than ever. 

Because once he got over the initial jolt from the lack of affirmation he was hoping for (which is true for about 90 percent of the submissions), he quickly understood the critique, agreed with most of it, and now he’s on his way.  Informed, coached, empowered with knowledge and new ideas, and thus, better than ever.

About 19 out of 20 of my clients find themselves having the same experience. The other 1 out of 20… to be honest, I don’t know.  I don’t hear back, which could mean anything.

This could be you.  On all fronts.  At all levels of the odds.

I do know this: it’s the best investment you’ll ever find, and ever make, in your writing dream.  Even at over 10 times the price, which is what you’d need to pony up for a full manuscript analysis… which would focus on the exact same variables and qualities, and yield almost the same level and nature of feedback.

*****

Click HERE to see more on The Amazing $100 Story Coaching and Empowerment Adventure. 

I also do full manuscripts and longer partials, also at a value price – my goal is to make this accessible to every writer… email me for a quote on those.

14 Comments

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14 Responses to Novelists: The Data on “Normal”… And the Path to Extraordinary

  1. Pingback: Novelists: The Data on ?Normal?? And the Path to Extraordinary « fufylokad

  2. Wow, that’s awesome! I’m going to do this when I get some extra cash!!!

  3. Many, many thanks for the feedback! That in itself is extremely informative. You’re truly offering great value, Larry.

  4. I just finished reading Story Engineering and all I have to say is: Wow! I can clearly see what was missing and what I need to do. I might be back in a few months for your feedback. Hoping you’ll still offer this service then.

  5. Faith Renfield

    The real feedback illustrates how we writer think we “get it” when we don’t! You are amazingly patient, Larry. I found the back and forth between you and this author so helpful. Thanks for putting it up–both to you and the writer.

  6. spinx

    Yes, yes, and…YES.

    The problem with the tension – it seems so easy until you are the one who has to make it all up.

    But, one question…..and I keep forgetting about this all the time, so I really hope you can answer it————>>>Does it have to be hard? The plot, the tense moments, PP1, and all that?
    And of course, the OUTLINING too!!

    How long does it take? How long should it take? Can it be done in a day? And…how long did it take you?

  7. I think Henry Ford said “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” I don’t think it has to be hard, but writing awesomeness isn’t going to be easy. You have to think deeply and ponder your story to polish it to the point that it will demand the attention of a public that doesn’t yet know your name.

    I’m a guy that has read Story Engineering and I’ve been through Larry’s coaching. The preliminary pass through the Core Competencies took me a few days, and then it took me about a week to outline all the scenes of the story. However, as one gets more experience with this I think you can do it much faster. I’d still want to take it slow and let ideas marinate though, allow a little time for inspiration to strike.

  8. Jacques

    great post. Always wanted to submit my story for that great deal you have. problem is, it isn’t in english (dutch). I could try to rewrite it in english. But it would be so time comsuming and i wouldn’t be able to complete it in time for the review and also it would be full of mistakes.

  9. As one of your ‘115 since May’, I have to say that the feedback you provided is aiding me greatly in my rewrite. It was like getting a map and being able to move forward with greater intention and clarity. Thanks Larry.
    And yes, EVERYBODY, when you can, take advantage of Larry’s $100 critique, or the full meal deal, and take your manuscript from topsy-turvy to tip-top shape in no time. Okay, there’s time, I lied. I’m in the time after now; writing, re-writing, editing, you know the drill. So, there’s time. Keep writing! Mindy

  10. The Amazing $100 Story Coaching was the ABSOLUTE best value I’ve ever spent on my writing. Thought provoking, deep questions that made me sweat, but so worth it in the end.

    Larry Brooks is not only an incredible writing coach, but a great author! I’m thrilled that I took the time to study, Story Engineering. Thanks Larry!

    Rhonda Hayes

  11. spinx

    @Matthew Shields

    A week you say? Now I am even more interested – how long exactly is that list? How detailed?

    Aaaand – how well did you know your story before that sheet?

    I am kinda stuck in that stage right now. When I would want to write, and I do, almost every day, but then, I just don´t know if I am messing things up going this way, or that, or, or, or……and it´s that OR that gets on my nerves!

  12. @Spinx I knew my story pretty well, but personally, I don’t think it matters. A) As a writer, you have to find ways to keep pushing forward and getting around things like writer’s block, so you need to just start somewhere. B) The opposite is true as well. Some say that stories are always abandoned – you can keep working on a story forever, never letting it go, making tweaks and changes that although they might improve the story, are mere nit picking. Here’s what I did: First I went through the book and jotted down notes on all the six core competancies – two days. Then, I wrote nine sentences (see Larry’s post about the nine sentences) – two days. Next, I went into Scrivener and used the nine sentences as folders and started adding scenes on the corkboard within each folder and outlined all the scenes. It took about a week and then the refining began. Changing scene order, adding scenes, deleting scenes, then writing a synopsis. Then I began writing the scenes on the corkboard in Scrivener and thats where I am now. Feel free to email me if you need more details!

  13. Pingback: The Soul of Abram Clark, a Novel « Shirley Buxton

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