What Just Might Get You Published. What Probably Won’t.

A few tough truths for the new and truly committed.

The following presumes you’ve actually written a publishable story.  A manuscript that stands ready to compete against proven professionals and talented first-timers with a story that’s every bit as compelling as yours.

How to write such a story and how to publish one are very different tutorials.  Today’s post is a high-altitude slice of the latter.  And yet, it demands that you wrap your head around the former… and own it.

Before you can fly, you must successfully complete ground school.  Nobody survives their first solo without it.

You must focus on both.  Maybe not simultaneously, but at least with overlapping concentrations.

Craft without art, and art without craft, will not get you published.

Getting published is very much like becoming a professional athlete, a dancer, a musician or a fine artist.  Even a pilot.  It requires solid craft lurking beneath all your abundant art.

You can’t reinvent the game you’re playing.  There are rules and boundaries in play, with subtle differences between genres.  And nobody’s invented a new genre in decades.

Getting published is always a bit of a paradox. 

You must be the same, but different. 

You must be better than good, though once you’re in, once you’ve made it, you need only to be good.

And if you’re not, there are bunch of recent grad editorial types sitting in cubicles who will rescue you.  Not so with the first-time novelist.

And even then, if you don’t sell well enough – which may or may not have anything at all to do with how good you are – you’ll soon find yourself under a bus thinking about what pseudonym you’ll adopt for your literary resurrection.

You must write for yourself first.

And you must respect yourself enough to write well, in accordance with established principles and expectations.

No finger painting allowed.  This isn’t kindergarten, this is the major leagues.

And yet, while you’re at it you must write with the intention of publishing if you want to elevate  your story to that point. Which, from one point of view, means you are no longer writing for just yourself.

Four words to remain sane within this paradox: Read.  Study.  Practice.  Repeat.

Find your voice.  Find your passion.  Summon the discipline required.

Writing a story any damn way you please isn’t a disciplined approach.  Nobody with their name on a book cover writes that way.

Your niche awaits. 

And when you get there, know that you will not have invented it.   

Just might.

Given that your manuscript is already good enough (by whatever measure you care to apply), you just might sell it if you have an agent.  The vast, overwhelming majority of first-time novels are sold to New York-based houses through an agent. 

Overwhelming, as in, unless you’re related to the Senior Editor, you need an agent for your manuscript to make it out of the mailroom.  That’s just the way it is, fair or not. 

And yes, while you hear of the occasional exception to that, you also hear of someone winning the lottery once a week.  Read the fine print on the latter: “should not be played for investment purposes.  Should be played for entertainment only.”

So which are you – writing as a career investment, as an intended profession, or are you writing to entertain yourself?  (If it’s the latter, then may I suggest you begin a diary.)

Or are you doing one in the mistaken belief you’re doing the other?

Perhaps the most naïve and frankly ridiculous comment/question I’ve ever heard from an unpublished writer was this: “Why should I give ten percent of my take to an agent, when I can sell it directly myself?  Or simply publish it myself?”

Because that ten percent is the best money a writer can possibly spend.  And even the smallest of advances gained through an agent who takes ten percent of it will vastly exceed anything you can expect to make by publishing it yourself.

If you have an agent, your odds are – literally – 10,000 times greater than trying to sell to a major publishing house without one.  And infinitely more viable than publishing it yourself.

The most dismal failure of a published book exceeds the sales volume of the highest reasonable expectation of a self-published book by a factor of about ten.

How do you get an agent?  First, by writing a publishable story.  Back to square one.  The endless circle of the publishing paradox.  Hop on, or not, but you can’t beat this system.

Probably won’t.

If, in reading that guy’s question a moment ago, you actually consider it – even for a nanosecond – as a viable, reasonable inquiry, then I submit to you that you probably won’t be published.  At least until you wise up.

Unless, of course, you are shooting low.  There are small publishers out there that buy manuscripts from first-time authors all the time. 

Getting published, and really getting published (in a way that can launch your career) are vastly different things.  You can get your private pilot’s license, which is a respectable achievement, or you can become an airline pilot.  Same difference.

Nothing wrong with small publishers, by the way (my latest book was published by a great one).  It’s just that, if you’re already thinking about the money and you aren’t also thinking about an agent in that context… odds are you don’t get it.

And if you don’t get that, chances are you don’t get professional-level storytelling, either.

Just might.

Your story is the same, but different.

By that I mean, your story fits neatly into a niche, a genre, and fulfills all the expectations of agents, publishers and readers.  It’s solid and it’s ready.

But… there’s something new and fresh about it.  Might be your writing voice, might be the conceptual heart of the story.

Probably won’t.

It’s as good as Grisham.  As bad-ass as Baldacci.  As rockin’ as Roberts and Rowling and as delightful as Demille.

Hear this clearly: the brand name, A-list authors you read have a different standard and a different process than unpublished authors looking to break in.  If you’re playing their game, you’ll lose.

You have to be better than they are.  In some cases, that’s a high bar.  In others… very doable.

What will make your story better?

A stronger, more original concept.  A cleaner, more compelling writing voice.  A strong, unforgettable character.  A theme that alters perceptions and changes readers.

Or simply, the integration of six core storytelling competencies that exceeds the sum of those parts.

Just might.

You have a vision for your story.

Your writing process isn’t a search for the story, or even an exploration of it.  Rather, it’s a passionate execution of it. 

The “it,” in that case, being a completely fleshed-out, realized story plan – however you get to that point – that leaves nothing to chance and no storytelling stone unturned.

Probably won’t.

You have the core of an idea in your brain, and because it’s so compelling to you, you allow it to write itself.  To just open a valve and let the words pour out of your head.

To listen for, and then follow, characters who seem to be talking to you.

For professional level writers, Rhis is the stuff of first drafts and story planning. The means to an end.

For less than professional writers, this is the end instead of the means.  And thus, it becomes the stuff of frustration and fodder for naivety.

If you don’t recognize, or believe, that there are expectations, principles and paradigms into which your story must fall into compliance, then you aren’t ready to write it at a professional level.

The journey, then – at least when it works – becomes the pursuit of that understanding, every bit as much as the pursuit of the next great story idea.

The published writer knows the difference.

Just might.

Your ending is astounding.  Something that blows readers off their easy chair.

Notice how many times your favorite A-list author, while spinning a great tale with witty narrative and a slick hero, fall short of this standard.

Earlier I said you have to be better than they are.  This is one way to get there.

Probably won’t.

When you settle for less than that.  When you think your idea, your writing voice and your likeable character is enough.

It isn’t. 

The pile is full of manuscripts with just those descriptors.  Unless your ending drops jaws and demands a re-read, chances are it won’t sell.

Just might.

You won’t quit.  Ever.

These stories are everywhere, and they illustrate a prerequisite more than a fluke.  In a recent post I talked about a writer who had a story that was rejected 400 times.  Rather than quit, she self-published and promoted her novel via Kindle.  Sales ensued, gaining the attention of a major house, and now she has a three-book contract.

The road is long and dark.  You have to become your own light along the way.  The burning flame of your passion to learn — not just to write — is the best way to see and sidestep the  multitude of potholes in that road.

Probably won’t.

If you’re doing this for any other reason than the inherent joy of the story itself, and the process of parenting it into existence.

If you’re doing it for the money, do the math.

If you can ignore that answer, if you realize that you’re writing your story for yourself and for publication at the same time – a critical difference, one you need to comprehend on both sides of the coin – then you have a shot.

Writing for yourself, without regard to the expectations of the publishing world, wont’ get you published.

Writing stories that seem to be just like what everybody with a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble is writing probably won’t, either.

You must defy the logic and the odds of showing up big at both. 

Going too far out on either end of that continuum puts you in a crowded place.  And hardly anybody sitting next to you there will either know how they got there or why they’re stuck there.

Larry’s new book, “Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out next February (2011) from Writers Digest Books.  You can get a peek at the cover, and even pre-order a copy from Amazon.com, HERE.

His new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published,” will be available within the next two weeks.  If you’d like to pre-order at a discount, send $10 to Paypal (storyfixer@gmail.com), and you’ll receive your PDF as soon as it’s released.  The regular price at that time will be $14.95.

If you’re in a writing/critique group and would like to order multiple copies of “Get Your Bad Self Published,” send $7.00 for each recipient (5 copy minimum order) to Paypal (storyfixer@gmail.com), along with the email addresses of each recipient.


Filed under getting published

9 Responses to What Just Might Get You Published. What Probably Won’t.

  1. “Craft without art, and art without craft, will not get you published.” – Amen. Craft is what you do (minimum requirements are the Six Core Competencies) and Art (your creativity) is how you do it.

    For this post, you might tack on the first part of the writing process, which is Requirements. “Everyone knows” vampire novels and movies are popular right now. But, the market is waning; no agent will probably even look at YAVN (Yet Another Vampire Novel). Please, no “me too” on this. No Catholic Church conspiracy uncovered.

    Paranormal, however, still appears quite popular. Your genre choice has to be personal so you can enjoy it and create it — but it must be marketable. Once you have several published books under your belt, you might be able to go after the money in your favorite genre.

    If publishing were easy, “everyone would be doing it.” We beginners must have the Craft sufficiently under control so it appears transparent. “Sufficiently,” as Larry points out, means you’ve got to be a virtuoso immediately, Craftwise.

    Your Art then must ride on that high Craft to deliver those powerful emotional experiences. Craft includes getting that Inciting Incident in the right place to draw in the Agent, Publisher’s Editor and the Gentle Reader, and then your Art has to grab them by the throat and never let them go until you’ve produced some tears of joy, tears of sorrow, coffee nose spurts, and other powerful emotional experiences.

    “Tough love” is the name of the game in modern publishing. Yes, we now have the choice of self-publishing or indie publishing, but any way you view the industry, it’s gonna be tough.

    Myself, I’ve got four novels in a series. They will all get major rewrites, because I know right now they aren’t not commercially viable — many Craft elements are missing, and the Art sure isn’t enough carry them.

    If you’re not willing to write for publication, to write to a specific reader, and to do the entire process, then Google “electronic diary software”. Probably can find something free on which to do your own mental masturbation.

    Nothing wrong with that, really. It’s free from harm, cheap, and you don’t have to walk home in the cold and put up with lots of barriers. But — it’s lonely as hell.

    Go write something great.

  2. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    I read your post after a long weekend spent with the MS, doing edits/rewrites as requested by an editor.
    As I worked, I reminded myself I followed the rules of structure when I executed this MS in the first place. I reminded myself about the six CC frequently. I reminded myself that this MS must be better, stronger, cleaner than those already out there.
    Then nerves kick in that I don’t have an agent.
    My internal editor wants a halt and a rethink about continuing the edits without having an agent.
    Regards, Kelly

  3. nancy

    This was a detailed message, but I am only zooming in on one of your words: Practice.

    I have just returned from a weekend writing seminar where a presenter said that all writer’s “must practice.” She even went as far as to say: “use prompts.” Those 4 words didn’t tell me much. What do you mean when you say “practice”? How do you practice?

  4. @Kelly — you’re in a good spot… by all means, finish your editor-requested changes. Asking you for edits is a good sign… just don’t read too much into it, yet. Keep moving forward there. And if they should make an offer, immediately get an agent on your team before signing. Unless it’s a very small publisher, then use your best judgment. Your situation does happen on occasion, especially with small publishers (not sure if your is small or large), but with the larger houses an agent is almost a given. Congrats, keep me posted!

    @Nancy — about “practice.” Some writers are so comfortable “pantsing” their stories that the prospect of doing any story planning, or even pantsing within the liberating confines of a four-part, milestone-driven story model, is foreign to them. Pushing through that resistence and writing with that paradigm in mind, hopefully by using “what if?” techniques to explore the very best creative and dramatic moments of exposition in your story, is what I mean by “practice.” Making “what if?” lists. Writing out plot point bullets. Doing flowcharts of the story. That’s all practice. Even doing this with a brand new idea, seeing how deep you can take it and sensing the moment when the “idea” becomes a story. That’s practice. And, deconstructing stories — both books and movies — to identify the four parts and the major milestones… that’s fantastic practice.

    Hope this helps. Practice is applying these principles toward not only your writing, but to your experience of writing as both a storytelling and a story consumer. It’s “seeing” it from both sides. It’s recognizing when and how it’s “off” in your own prior work. In essence, it’s simply thinking about it, embracing it and then looking for ways to apply it as a writer and reader of stories.

  5. Curtis

    Larry. For what it is worth, I’ve been watching some b/w movies on TCM from back in the 40’s. Guess what? Every story element you mention is present. In fact, those stories seem better crafted than most of what we have today.

  6. Always inspirational but with the reality check that’s never uttered by the writing “gurus.” Thanks, Larry.

  7. As usual, worth printing and sticking up on the wall by my desk.

    I read some writings I wrote a year ago, and I’m proud to say that the improvement in quality from then to now is clearly noticeable.

    As a slight aside, directed back to the invaluable advice you gave on story structure, dropping in subtle clues in the mystery I’m currently working on is so much easier since I’ve plotted the story from stem to stern.

    Thanks again.

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