That’s what we all want, right? In our secret heart of hearts we want it all, the window position at Borders, a spot on the Times list, maybe a morning shot on GMA.
Truth be known, that little secret desire resides right next to the unflagging belief that we can write as well as the Big Name authors who are living that dream now. That knowledge torments us as we lay awake nights wondering how they made it happen before we did.
And so we labor over our craft. We read and we go to conferences and we bang out draft after draft of story after story. Paying our dues, honing our chops. We’re doing this the right way, shelving what we know may be a delusion in a sincere campaign to be worthy when opportunity knocks.
But here’s the deal. And it involves understanding – and possibly seizing – what those successful authors know that you don’t.
There are two levels of getting published.
One is just getting into the game. The other is getting a featured billing and, we pray, an enduring career.
They are as different as being an extra on a movie set or getting top billing and a trailer. Even if you’re better looking than the star with the name on that door.
The enlightened writer understands that the established names – the ones you’re sure you can already out-write on a good day – play by a different set of rules. They have contracts. They have a floor full of editors waiting to turn their chicken droppings into chicken salad.
They can rewrite the Walla Walla phone book and someone will publish it. And because their name is on the cover, it will sell.
Of course, that never happens. Why? Because the people writing the checks won’t let it happen.
When we submit something that reeks of imperfection, we are rejected.
When an A-list author does so – and rest assured, they do – they get rescued.
When we write something that is pretty damn good, but doesn’t stand out from the pile on the editor’s desk, we also get rejected. When an A-list writer pens something that is pretty damn good they get a review in People Magazine and a publicist.
The equity, or lack thereof, of that isn’t the point.
Nobody who has ever tried, even those who have succeeded, will claim that the publishing process is fair. It doesn’t try to be.
The salient point here, though, is looking closer at who reaches that level, and why. Under that discerning microscope there awaits a tiny morsel of insight that, if it applies, might just propel you into the epicenter of your writing dream.
Take a long hard look at the famous authors you admire, and chances are you might see something there that you’ve missed before. Once you see it you’ll shake your head at its obviousness, but still, you haven’t compared yourself to that standard yet.
Maybe you should.
Maybe you already have what they have.
I’m not talking about talent or skill. I’m talking about a life experience worth writing about. Or if not about, per se, then using as an arena for your next story.
That’s precisely what a significant percentage of the authors you’ve heard of do.
Next time a “first novel” gets a lot of pre-publication hype, look closely at the background of the author. Odds are there’s something there that connects to the story they’ve told, something that separates them – other than talent – from the hoards of others submitting manuscripts in the very same genre or niche.
That Big New Novel that exposes the underbelly of the movie industry? You can bet the author used to be a player in that very business, rather than some schmoe from Fort Worth who spent a month of Sundays on the internet getting up to snuff.
Case in point: Nelson Demille.
My hands-down favorite author, by the way.
He writes cynical, wry thrillers that always relate to a situation, or a hero, that connects to military intelligence and crime, and/or national security. He has written 12 NY Times bestsellers doing this. And guess what… before he was a writer, he worked in military intelligence and security.
His Vietnam masterpiece, 2004’s Up Country, was more autobiographical than anyone knows. Nobody else on the planet could have written that novel, that way.
My favorite whodunit author is Michael Connelly. He writes stories set on the mean streets of Los Angeles. And guess what… before he was an author of novels, he was a beat crime writer in – wait for it – Los Angeles.
Coincidence? I think not.
Have you read Patricia Cornwall or Kathy Reichs? If not, I’m certain you’ve heard of them, especially if you’ve strolled past that Border’s window. They write mysteries that center around forensic science and the gritty realism of the autopsy room, and guess what… both worked in the coroner trade before they began writing novels.
The TV show Bones? That’s all based on Reich’s books and her career.
Here’s the bottom line.
It’s full of holes and exceptions, but that doesn’t remotely water down the opportunity that just might be calling your name.
The best spy thrillers are written by ex-spies. Or someone who worked in the CIA in some form, even if it was in the mailroom.
John Grisham writes legal thrillers. John Grisham was a lawyer. Same with Scott Turow. And my friend Phil Margolin. And pretty much anybody else who has written a bestseller starring a lawyer and involving that trade.
Remember an author named John Nance? He had a bunch of bestsellers in the 80s and 90s about aviation. He also had a gig on one of the morning talk shows you’re desperately dreaming of being on as their aviation correspondent. Guess what… he moonlighted as a pilot for Alaska Airlines.
Examples of this are everywhere. So much so, that they are screaming to become a fact of writing and publishing life.
But what about genre, you might ask?
Granted, not all novels are set in an arena that has inherent career opportunities afoot. What about family dramas, romances, teen adventures… are those authors all professional family therapists, divorce lawyers, adulterers, hookers and high school counselors?
No. But they could be.
And if you happen to be any one of those in a past life, pay attention, that’s the point we’re kicking around today. Because you just might have a leg up on authors who don’t have the benefit of a personal resume that brings a sense of realism and vicarious thrill to the experience of the story itself.
Have you been there, done that? Perhaps you should consider writing about it.
Not every writer can say they’ve lived into this opportunity. Not all of our lives and careers are fascinating and involve dead bodies, treacherous spies, military lack of intelligence and the gritty danger of life on the street.
But take a look at your life.
What do you know that the vast majority of readers don’t? Whatever it is, it might qualify you to layer a story over it – every story needs an environmental and societal landscape – that will set you apart from the truckload of submissions in the agent’s mailroom.
Just a teacher? How about a romance between faculty set in a stuffy private school?
A tax accountant? What if a Big Wig with the mob comes in and asks you to do his 1040, and oh by the way, he knows where you live?
Worked at Burger King back when? Or maybe now? C’mon, there’s gotta be something about the inside society of the fast food industry that is screaming for a story. A comedy maybe.
You get the drift here. You don’t have to be a lawyer or a mortician – now there’s an idea – to take us into a private world where you once did your thing.
You need to be set apart, too. Your crackerjack writing and storytelling skills may not be enough. Not when the manuscript right behind yours was written by a crack investigative journalist and her story is about the murder of a crack investigative journalist who was murdered because she had stumbled into the wrong dark corner in Georgetown.
There’s nothing wrong with a housewife from Wisconsin setting out to write a sexy novel about a drug dealer operating out of Havana. Research is a beautiful thing. But the truth is, the real ex-Havana crack dealer writing the same story already has a leg up on her, and no research in the world can supplant the vicereral, minutea-bound credibility of someone who knows.
Sure, it’s fiction, we get that. But you have to bring it to life, and life is about truth. And everybody has lived a truth worth telling.
So the next time you’re waiting for the muse to bestow a career-making idea on you, ask her to take a look at your resume. Maybe the opportunity you’ve been waiting for is already there.
Just add a story, stir in craft, shake until blended then bake until done… and who knows. You might end up staring Matt Lauer in the eye one of these mornings a year or two down the road.
Hey, it could happen. The path toward that end begins with the story you choose to write as much as it does your ability to write it.
Do you know of an author who has leveraged their background into a career? Please share.