The Holy Grail of Getting Published Big

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.

31 Comments

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31 Responses to The Holy Grail of Getting Published Big

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    In my mind, there are two versions of this.

    The overt, which is what you’re talking about (the Lawyers doing legal thrillers, the Havana Crack Dealer, etc), and the more subtle where the genuine is more about the character conflict.

    Personal example, the NaNovel I wrote last November focused on the idea of struggling with identity and trying to find your own way on two levels. One trying to get out from under someone else’s shadow, and another when you feel like something is taken away from you and trying to deal with or get that back.

    I used the feelings I struggled with in both sides of that theme in my own life across two characters to try to breathe something deep and real into the experience of the characters. I won’t be sure if I succeeded until I can bring myself to sit down and edit it, but understanding of those feelings can give you an entirely different and important audience, IMO. Ones who relate closely to the emotion that the theme is based on.

    Hell, if you’re writing in genres like fantasy, I think you’re forced to go down that road, at least unless you are doing Urban Fantasy where you can still have the beat cop or Lawyer or whatever thing going on top of the mystical.

  2. Tess Gerritsen & Marc Acito both have careers from writing stories based on personal/professional life experience.

    This post made me feel great because my WIP is a sassy domestic romance with a touch of adventure, some wacky coincidences, and debates with psychic overtones. The adventures include boating incidents on the Columbia River (had many!) and my sister is an astrologer so I had to learn the basics of that esoteric science in self defense.

  3. This, in my opinion, is what “Write what you know” is about. If you have experience in a certain area, writing about it gives you credibility.

    I do agree with Patrick, though, that this applies to themes or situations as much as occupations. If you’ve had to deal with, say, losing a child, you have a leg up on the writer trying to imagine what it’s like.

    I write fantasy, and while I can’t restrict myself to what I’ve lived (especially since at my age, you haven’t lived that much yet), I find that drawing upon my own battles gives more intensity and credibility to my stories.

  4. @Patrick and Claudie — I couldn’t agree more. The thing we’re going for here is that a writer should choose to work in an arena — a society, a place, a profession, or as you say, a personal space or emotion or situation — in which they are seasoned and experienced, with a goal toward bringing something to the story that is subtle and covert, that isn’t obvious, yet is fascinating and value-adding and deep. For example, fantasies, life-long dreams and fascinations, relationships with architypical characters… these are all things we can write about from that “insider” perspective. When it’s an occupation then the details of the real-world can be fascinating, but when it’s from the inner landscape those details can be just as fascinating. Thanks for opening this adjacent can of worms and adding to this important discussion. I think it’s beyond “write what you know,” because sometimes that isn’t a compelling choice; rather, “know what you write” seems a better nuance to that guideline. L.

  5. Patrick Sullivan

    A phrase I’ve really come to love for this sort of thing, which I think I picked up from Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird, was “Write Truth.”

    The idea being you need something fundamentally true underpinning the story to help give it that emotional impact that will resonate with the reader and bring them back for more. After all, if you don’t resonate with the character in a thriller, does the situation have nearly as much impact?

  6. I am excited to hear you say this, Larry. I am currently writing my first novel and while I am pulling some of the ideas and details for my book from my personal life and work experiences, I am also having a great time exploring the “what ifs” which is taking the story to a whole different level.

  7. After my dad’s death (I was seventeen then), an apparition began to visit me at night. It seemed like a dream, but I could feel his presence.

    Usually when I wake up, I’d discover he had left me some clothes, money, and a small stone wraped in a palm leaves. Whenever I wear the clothes, people tend to admire me more, and I took to stealing.

    The ghost told me he can’t leave me alone, that my mum visited a shrine before conceiving me. That sounded true to me. The fact that I was the seventh child (the first son) in my family suggested it. My parents must have been desperate about having a male issue. That matters in Africa.

    Soon, things escalated and I became afraid and wanted to tell my sisters. But the ghost told me he’d kill me if I did. I decide to go and see a popular Rev father, but the ghost appeared on my way, then I blacked out, only to discover I could literally no longer talk.

    He shouldn’t have forgetten I can write.

    My family moved me from church to church. Then after some prayers, I vomited a stone. That was when I began to speak again. They said my fear was what left me vulnerable.

    Today I’m writing a fantasy novel about spooks who are at war with humans, with the fear in humans being their only weapon.

    I wonder, Larry, if this kind of experience counts.

  8. Sophie Kinsella!! She is my favorite, favorite author. She leveraged her background as a financial journalist to write her best-selling “Shopaholic” series. She’s such an inspiration to me as a writer. She’s funny and witty and just so damn creative it’s disgusting. haha Maybe she’s not the best writer in the world (her books are full of adverbs), but she knows how to tell a story. She knows how to captivate an audience. And she knows how to do it over and over again.

    I aim to be the kind of storyteller she is!

  9. @Walter — oh hell yes it matters! I’m thinking you should novelize YOUR story (the one you just shared) in addition to the genre you mention. Good stuff!

    @Jennifer — always love hearing from you. Kinsella is huge, and for a good reason — she brings her readers into the story experientially and vicariously. A good thing to notice and emmulate.

  10. Andrea

    This is the second post making me want to jump right into my computer screen, yelling: “THAT’S PERFECT! THAT’S ME! THAT’S WHAT I WAS THINKING, TOO!”
    But I resist to destroy my computer, since I still need it to write.

    Very good post, Larry. I for one didn’t even have a big job career, but my family’s background, my depressions and thus two long stays at two different mental hospitals give me enough stuff and characters to write about.

  11. And this goes beyond vocational details. Many of my characters are amalgams of people I’ve met over the fifty years I’ve been around. (Memories of those I met exclusively in the first four years are hazy, so little is gleaned from them.)

    I’m certainly not suggesting that your characters are drawn straight from real life – that would be dangerous, and a great way to break up any relationships you might currently be enjoying.

    But take the vicious temper of Uncle Bart, the Russian accent of the girl you worked with ten years ago (and some of her stories about growing up in Moscow) and the physical characteristics of cousin Dean (and his training regimen to get those physical characteristics) and you’ve got yourself a pretty good bad guy. Or girl.

    And no, I don’t have an Uncle Bart.

    Love your posts, Larry. Thanks again. Looking forward to your book.

  12. Sammi

    When I read this post, I had my doubts. I’m a fast food worker, but I wasn’t finding any inspiration from my job, until I realized that there were two stories right in front of my nose. (Neither of them comedies–one a horror, the other a crime story.) One of them just might be up my alley for a short story.

  13. nancy

    Just curious, Larry. Was anything left from your life to put into your fifth book, Whisper?

    I have just finished a novel based on my experience in the Congo and the Foreign Service. But as I look for my next topic, I worry that that I have already spent my whole past on that first book.

  14. Krista

    Really good points, Larry, and Alisa Valdez-Rodrigues’ “Dirty Girls” series comes to mind. They’re about Latinas in Anglo culture, starting in Boston College, and she has lived that situation.
    Now, would you please extend this thread to include historical fiction?

  15. @Krista — historical fiction… that’s a tough one where being “experiential” is concerned. A genre in which research is everything, and theme is critical (theme is why we care about historical fiction). That said, the writer might gravitate toward themes (life experiences) in which they have some real life skin, translating a journey or lesson that has been huge in their life to the lives of the characters, then set it upon a historical stage. Again, that been-there-done-that credibility is invaluable to historical as much as any other genre, even though we couldn’t have actually been-there-done-that. It’s a good reminder — setting an dplot is all just a stage for us to see into the lives of characters, no matter when or where they live(d). Just my thoughts, hope this helps. L.

  16. Andrea

    I am writing on historical fiction at the moment, too. I am trying to see the characters and the story’s “stage” (= the time it’s set) independently. Means, I am doing as much research on the timeframe as possible. And separately I’m doing research on human psychology.
    Research can be a dry business sometimes, but it does give you new ideas for these remarkable moments we all have to include in our stories (thanks to Larry and his ‘8 moments …’ post for this). And so, slowly but surely, my characters will marry the time they are supposed to act.

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  19. This is the first time I have visited this blog. Love it!

    This post makes a lot of sense and I agree with what you are trying to say, but – and I want it duly noting – I am in NO way a psycho-sexual deviant, serial killer! 😉

  20. I love this post and totally agree with what you’ve said. However, I think its important to incorporate what you know in an interesting and suspenseful way that pulls the reader in and engages him, which is easier said than done. I’m speaking from personal experience as I wrote a novel set in a software company, the kind of place where I work and which has its own quirks and foibles.

  21. This is such a wonderful post that gets me thinking about it all. From where I started to where I am now. Thanks for the post.

  22. @Gargi — cool. Software companies are living, breathing soap operas of human interaction, or at least they used to be when a small elite group of equity holders were scheming to get rich selling place out from under everyone.

    My third published novel (“Serpents Dance”) involves a software company (it linked to my life experience because, as a corporate communications guy, I had many clients in the biz). It started out a baseball novel (I used to play pro baseball, so I’m walking the walk here, I guess), but in kicking the initial story planning ideas around with my editor (who claimed baseball novels don’t sell… he was wrong then and he’s still wrong), we switched the venue to another stage. I picked software precise because I had some skin in that game.

    Thanks for contributing, and good luck with your project!

  23. Patrick Sullivan

    Smaller software companies at least very much still are soap operas, having worked in several (and still in one of them).

  24. Thanks Larry and Patrick for your comments and encouragement!

  25. Michael J Lawrence

    It’s interesting how “authenticity” has become so important these days. Actors portraying ballerinas take ballet lessons. Jedi Knights study Kendo. Any movie with combat has to send its cast to see Dale Dye, Captain USMC (ret.) to learn how to act like a soldier.

    And on and on. FIlms seem to be required to be as accurate as a documentary in the minutae, regardless of the story.

    I guess we expect the same in our novels, but it isn’t always there, in either medium. Tom Clancy, although he has lots of friends in the Navy, doesn’t protray the Navy in any way that is authentic. (Trust me, the fact that we got the jets off the pointy end was a small miracle in itself.) Why? He wasn’t there.

    “Swordfish” – omg, are you kidding me? Not even close to the IT culture, black hat or otherwise. The reality is much more chaotic and not nearly as l33t. (It has been my general observation that any movie which includes any kind of IT/computer setting is way off the mark.) The late Michael Crichton came close with “Disclosure”, but he wasn’t “there”. Here’s a tip if you include computer geeks in your story: all Unix gurus wear a pony tail. I kid you not.

    I understand that a lot of popular fiction by A-list comes from people digging into their past. But at least some of it doesn’t. And yet these author’s injecting their stories with settings or ideas that they do not have a personal knowledge of still get the Big Famous Author treatment.

    Since they don’t have the resume to back their writing, what are they doing that still keeps them on the 14th floor with a corner office?

    I’m not trying to torpedo the concept here. I’m just saying, “Yeah, but what about the posers that still get the big $$$?

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