Let me use a metaphor for how you become a published writer.
Twenty feet away is a bucket. If you get a ball into that bucket, you will be paid about three months’ minimum wage.
Which ball, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. The ball is in a locked box that you open by pressing a combination of about half a million buttons on a keypad in front of you. It will take between six months and a year to enter this combination.
At this point, you can probably see the problem with this as a career choice.
But you quite enjoy pressing combinations of buttons, and you enter that combination.
The box opens. You now get to lob that ball at the bucket.
There’s no prize if you nearly get the ball in the bucket. Oh yes, forgot to mention. If you don’t get it in the bucket, there’s no way of knowing, at all, how close you got.
If you don’t manage it, you can try again, as many times as you like.
How many times should you try?
There are many reasons to write. Everyone has a creative side, and most of us don’t develop it. If you enjoy writing … enjoy writing. Express yourself, have fun, crystallise your thoughts and feelings and memories in written words. I strongly encourage everyone to write creatively, particularly if you’re not painting, singing, dancing, sculpting. Make art. Everyone make art. It’s not frivolous, it’s not childish.
‘Being published’ is different. Not better or worse, but it’s about attaining a very specific goal: being paid to write. We pretend it’s not, but it’s basically just applying for a job.
If you spent two years trying to break into any form of work, and had absolutely nothing to show for it, then you’d be perfectly entitled to walk away. There’s no honour in relentlessly not achieving what you set out to do. You’re not following your dream doing that, you’re expending time that could be spent on some other dream that might be a better fit.
More to the point … most of us simply don’t have the luxury of the spare time to waste two years, or three, or four or eight not getting a job.
Here’s the current state of the market: a lot of people are pitching novels at agents and publishers.
The good news: a lot of novels are published. A quick Google, and it depends where you draw the line, but about 150 new novels are published a day in the US. That’s probably less than 1% of the novels pitched to agents and publishers (no one collects that number).
So, hi, you’re starting from a basis of having 15,000 people a day applying for this job. This includes every established writer. One editor is literally going to look at your proposal and go ‘I could work on this … or spend my time on that new one by my old friend Stephen King’. You’re not going to win that fight, dude. Sorry.
Hey … I’m not smug about this. I’m swimming in this sea. I’ve had novels, actual 100,000 word novels that I wrote and rewrote over the course of years, rejected. And I have a great agent, and thirty books on my CV. (And I’ve had great projects drop into my lap. I’ve been really lucky).
And a quick note: it might be comforting to think that the 99% that get rejected are all gibberingly incompetent. Every agent and publisher has anecdotes about terrible books they’ve received, or books where they’re a publisher who only publish technical manuals for industrial pumps and someone sent them a 900 page manuscript that’s a porno science fiction thriller with some ‘interesting’ theories about the Muslim religion.
But most people sending books to agents and publishers aren’t delusional. They are a self-selecting group of people who have diligently, to their best ability, put together a perfectly competent proposal for a book. Many don’t follow the basic guidelines, but even so, the 99% of people are … well, people like you, aspiring author.
The books get rejected because they are … OK. They’re … competent. But they don’t quite come together. They’re bland. That’s the main problem with most of them. You’re trying to get the agent or editor to go WOW, and instead, they’re a bit of a yawn.
If you read self published novels, even a lot of small press ones, you come across this a lot. It’s often hard to see what’s ‘wrong’, as such, but the engine doesn’t fire up. They’re just not … good enough.
What do you need to get published?
(1) A finished novel. An actual, 85,000-100,000 manuscript that’s of publishable standard. These days, publishers might ask for sample chapters first, but they want the whole book ready. And not just ‘I wrote lots of words for NaNoWriMo’, but a complete book that’s as ready as can be. One that feels edited and worked on, and crafted.
That’s stage one. That’s not the winning position, that’s what buys you entry to the game.
And here’s my point … oh god, that’s so unfair. With endless free time and natural aptitude as a writer, that will take you, minimum, a year. A year where you could be doing other things. Fun things. It’s not ‘quitting’ to go ‘no, I’m not doing that, that’s stupid‘.
(2) It has to hook from the first page. Agents and editors know that 99% of the stuff they get sent won’t work for them. So they’re expecting your thing to be a bit crap. Surprise them. Hit them with an amazing first line. While they’re reeling from that, smack them with the main character and what’s at stake in this story. And do that on the first page. For the love of all that is holy and unholy, do not under any circumstance start with a prologue where a character who dies at the end of the prologue muses about how boring this guard duty is. Or a flashback. What!? You started with a flashback? Oh god, no. Start with the actual story you’re telling, you idiot. Don’t ease into it, start at one of the dramatic highpoints of the book, and have at least one of your major characters on that first page, caught up in the world of your book. Oh, and get some jaw-dropping metaphor or surreal juxtaposition in there, a piece of wordplay that says ‘GREAT NEW WRITER JUST ARRIVED’. We’re still on the first page, by the way. Call it the first two hundred words.
(3) It has to be sellable now. Submitting it in April 2017? It’s got to be a thing that people will want to read this Christmas. Not a book for the ages, but a book where someone’s going ‘Gone Girl’s big, killer clowns are big, have you got something like that?’. Got a book that’s Hillbilly Elegy meets Game of Thrones? Get it finished now. (heh, you know who you are). Remember: You Started This A Year Ago. You have to have magically guessed that we’d be living in a post-Brexit era of Trump where Westworld was a big hit, and so was La La Land, and so people are in that mood. There’s an easier way to get to this: sheer unadulterated luck.
(4) A ‘platform’. Who the hell are you? Why the hell would anyone buy a book by you? You know what happens normally when someone goes ‘hey, I’ve written a novel, would you like to read it?’. You break eye contact with that person and run a mile. Instead, your plan is that you’ll ask that and someone will not only read it, they’ll pay you $25 for the privilege. So … ‘why you?’. What qualifies you, what makes you interesting? How many people read your blog? How many retweets do you get? What was the largest audience you gave a talk to? As you lay out your cards, the picture cards include ‘this is what my last book sold’, and ‘this is where my last book was reviewed’ … and first time authors don’t get any of the picture cards.
(5) A massive amount of luck. Sorry. Fact of life. Get 1-4 exactly right, then roll 2d6 and if you don’t score 12, you’ve just wasted a whole year.
And … wow. What did I miss out? ‘Persistence’. Because … persistence really doesn’t matter. It’s kind of a numbers game, but not really. It’s a ‘write a really good novel … and then some other stuff has to fall into place’ game. If, each time, you’re getting better and better at writing novels, than you’ll hit (1) eventually. After that … it’s not completely random or capricious, but there are so many things out of your control that you can’t rely on things ever panning out. They might. They might not. If you give up, obviously it won’t happen. If you don’t … there’s no ‘eventually, it must’. At some point, it will make sense to cut your losses. That point might be ‘second time’ or ‘eighth’. How much free time do you have?
I would never, ever discourage people from writing or wanting to be published. People who know me would say, I hope, that I have done everything I can to nurture and encourage people if I think they have talent. But … it can be entirely rational to not start down this path. You have to accept going in that it’s a lot of work, with very poor odds. It’s certainly rational to get off it after two attempts where you did everything right.
So … um … OK. Please try. But there’s no shame, at all, in giving up the dream if it’s not working out for you.