By Wendy Keller, Senior Literary Agent
There were about 160 people crowded into the room, some forced to stand, all waiting for my presentation to begin. I felt flattered. It was Day Three of the writer’s conference and this was my third and final presentation at this event.
Suddenly, an idea struck me. I decided to change my opening as I walked toward the platform. I smiled at the crowd. I asked “Please stand up if you are attending your very first writer’s conference.” About 40 people stood. I led the audience in wild applause for these brave folks. So many people just talk about writing a book “someday” and never do anything about it. They never attend a writer’s conference, never attempt to learn the craft or the business. First timers deserve a round of applause, and frankly, so do you. Congratulations on reading this article. It will help you understand how to train your mind to overcome the inevitable barriers, speed bumps and obstacles on the path to publication.
Back to the conference. The applause died down and these brave souls settled into their chairs. I said, “Now, if you’ve attended two or more, stand up.” The rest of the room stood.
“Remain standing if you’ve attended three or more.” Some sat.
“Remain standing if you’ve attended four or more.” Many sat.
“Remain standing if you have attended five or more writers’ conferences.” About 25 people were left. You could see them looking around, smiling broadly. They were certain I was going to walk right up to each of them and hand them contracts from Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins.
Instead I asked, “Remain standing if in all this time, attending five or more conferences, you have completed a fiction book manuscript or a nonfiction book proposal, and shown it to any agents or editors.”
Every single person sat down!
I was as shocked as they were. I wanted to yell, “How can you put all this energy into learning and no energy into doing?” Wishing won’t make you a published author. Writing, writing, writing and never submitting won’t make you a published author. Only completing your project, submitting, learning from rejections (if they come) and trying again will make you a published author.
Are you somewhere in that cycle? Wherever you are, I believe this book will help you. After the conference, I became fascinated with the reluctance to finish, the hesitation to submit, the discouragement of rejections from the writer’s perspective. The research I’ve done and observations I made have resulted in this book. My sincere goal is to help muster the inner fortitude it’s going to take to go from a great idea all the way to Barnes & Noble.
You may well ask, “What does an agent know about rejections?” After all, we’re the Evil Gatekeepers who prevent brilliant ideas like yours from even being seen by publishers, right? I myself reject at least 95% of everything I’m offered, which is about the same percentage as most agents who don’t charge reading fees. I mean, c’mon. We’re the enemy, right?
I guess the difference is this: I’m an author, too. At this moment, I have 28 published books to my credit, under six pseudonyms. I write as a hobby, because I enjoy it. I have no desire to do it full time. I’m not your competition; I’m a cheerleader for writers. I’ve been an agent since 1989, and sold hundreds of book rights all over the world. I like selling other people’s work. In fact, the three most exciting moments of a book’s life while I’m in charge of it are:
1) When editors start saying yes, they want to see it.
2) When I get to call the author and say, “Guess what? Your book is sold!”
3) (My most favorite) when the check clears.
Before I was an author, I was an award-winning journalist. I love to represent journalists, because we’ve been trained specifically in skills useful for every writer. I believe the journalist’s mindset will serve you well if you want to become an author. The most important part is this: we’ve been trained to be unattached to the material. That lack of emotional attachment is probably the single biggest skill I’d like you to learn. If it were as easy as telling you that you should unattach from your material in all aspects, you could stop reading right here. But for most writers, learning how to unattach, and what attachment looks like, is a slow process. Failure to do so is how they create their own stagnation as writers.
Let me explain what I mean by detachment and then we’ll get into specifics a little further on in the book. When I was about 17 years old and a college freshman, I was an intern at the local newspaper. I had graduated from high school a little early, and I felt I had to work extra hard to prove myself to my peers who were mostly older than me. The newspaper had me “cub” under a salty reporter from New York, Joel Millman, who had landed in this podunk town in Arizona for no reason ever apparent to me. I thought he was a journalism god. Joel had me writing obituaries (boring!) and doing the weekly “man-on-the-street” interviews (stagnation personified). That took about as much talent as it takes to color inside the lines. I was chomping at the bit, so Joel finally let me have a story assignment. I was thrilled!
I selected and interviewed the people. I took meticulous notes, trying to capture every word they said verbatim. Then I began assembling my article the way my journalism professor had taught us. I worked on that article, not counting interviews, for probably upwards of nine hours. I wrote, rewrote, edited and rewrote. I barely slept for two days. It was my entire focus, my quick path to the precious Pulitzer.
Finally, I was ready to turn it in to Joel. I crouched over his esteemed shoulder as he read it onscreen. He shooed me away. I crept back. I watched him scroll down. He finished reading my fabulous article. It didn’t take long, since my entire allowance was just 500 words!
In his gruff New York accent, he yelled out “Keller!” I was right behind him, and I said yes so enthusiastically I made him jump. That was my last happy moment before I became a real writer.
He asked how long it had taken me and I told him. He said, “This is…” He began to highlight and scroll down the screen. “This, and this…” he scrolled. The suspense built. “This, this and this…” I held my breath. I was about to bask in his well-deserved praise. I was so excited. He kept highlighting.
“This is all %$#!.” He deleted the whole article! The whole thing! Not one measly word blinked on the monitor. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.
He stood up. “It’s crap. You wrote this from your perspective, not the reader’s. No one gives a %^$# about this (#@$. Do it over.”
He stood up and walked away. Me, my notes, my pride, we all sat together in a crumbled heap. It was over. I had been deleted.
But I was not defeated.
After a few minutes, I felt rage – at myself, him, the unfair world. I re-wrote furiously. This time, I wrote it solely, overly, too much from the perspective of the citizens who would read the stupid thing later. I was blistering with fury. I jabbed at the keyboard. I rewrote it in record time, spinning through my notes, papers whirling. When I finished, Joel came to look.
He read the whole thing. I chewed hard on my lower lip.
He said one word, “Better.”
It got printed the next day! I was a real journalist!
So what does that story have to do with you? The two most important things you can learn as a writer are hidden in this anecdote from my early career:
- No one cares what you want to write. They care about what they want to read.
- If the people who control its publication say it’s not good, fix it. Period. No whining.
Remember those two things and you’ve got it made.
Let’s get started on working on your beliefs, attitudes, goals, dreams, aspirations and obstacles to becoming a successful published writer. Because frankly, you don’t want to write just one book, do you? No. Let’s be honest. You want to have publishers fighting over the rights to your second and third best-sellers.
The Gumption of Getting Started…or getting started again
So let’s begin. How do you get through the “I want to write” stage to “I’m writing”? How do you resume working on a manuscript that’s lost its steam? What if your precious masterpiece has been rejected indiscriminately by a bunch of unconscious morons who don’t see its brilliance? (I’m an agent. Thus I claim the right to make fun of my colleagues and myself, and also to express the words I’ve heard from writers who didn’t know what I do for a living before they spoke.)
Motivating yourself takes two things: faith and guts, generally called “gumption” in certain parts of the country. First, there’s the faith that what you are writing is worth your while – whatever that means to you – and then that you have the guts to see it through to its conclusion.
Some people tell me they write because they “have a burning story to tell.” Or they “don’t know how not to write” or the story just “percolates up inside them.” The characters wake them up while they sleep. Others write by more logical choice, because it will spread their message, tell their story of heroism, inspire others, grow their business or speaking career, etc. I even know a few people who are writing exclusively to pursue the dream of getting on Oprah.
Whatever your purpose, I think you need to be honest about it. There are plenty of old folks out there who are writing to tell their life story to their kin before they die. They are writing from a position of legacy and if it gets published or if, like my first husband’s late grandmother did, they self-publish, the point is their life is recorded for posterity.
There are people who are writing for the express purpose of making the best seller list, starting a career as a full time writer, making money, whatever. I have written several pseudonymous books because I wanted to take a specific trip to Europe or remodel a certain room in my house. Whatever your reason, I strongly suggest you consider it carefully, write it down and use that goal as a motivator for the inevitable rough times ahead.
They will come.
Isolating your goal is Step One in how you overcome them. Let’s isolate your ideal outcome as a writer right here and now. On paper. Please get a notebook, a scrap of paper, a paper napkin or a used tissue. Doesn’t matter at all. The result does.
Take a few moments to visualize what success as a writer looks like for you. Be honest with yourself. No one else is looking over your shoulder. If you dream about being a best seller, why? Do you want the TV appearances? The money? The screenplay optioned? What is your actual, real, basic goal? What do you think you will gain by doing this work, perfecting your craft and achieving your goal?
Ponder this for a moment.
What about being on Oprah do you want? Is it meeting her? Proving to your mother she was wrong about you? Your fifth grade English teacher who gave you that F? Your lying’ cheatin’ ex spouse that you are worthy? It’s always a personal thing to write a book, because a book is like having open-heart surgery – you are bare for all to see.
Now that you’ve scribbled something down, distill it. Break it into smaller pieces. How much money do you think you’d make? What opportunities do you think that would give you? What would it say about you as a person – to yourself and those you wish to impress?
I want to see my book in the bookstore.
That’s a fine reason to write. But why do you want to see it in the bookstore? Which bookstore?
I want to feel proud of my book when I see it at Barnes & Noble.
What about it makes you proud? If all you want is to see it in the store, you can self-publish, sneak in, put a copy on the shelf and stare at it for a few hours.
I want my friends and family to see my book at Barnes & Noble.
Who cares what they think? Why do you care? Let’s get down to the truth.
I want to prove to my older sister Judy, the PhD, that I am as smart as she is after all.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we’re closer to a real reason. You want to get published to prove something to someone else. This is a remarkably common reason to seek publication in my experience. It also opens the playing field rather dramatically. If proving you’re as smart as Judy is your goal, then there are about 200 little “tricks” you can use to determine what to write that will show Judy once and for all that you’re smart enough to work the inside track of publishing. In fact, if that’s your goal and it is your primary goal – and if you are flexible (like I had to be when Joel deleted my whole first article) – then I can almost guarantee you a book sale within 12 months if you have even a modicum of talent.
How’s that for a promise? But, instead of your great American novel, you may need to write “The Bartender’s Guide To Creative, Colorful Cocktails” even though you’ve been in AA for twenty years. But heck, Judy will see your name on that book at her local Barnes and Noble and voila! You’ve accomplished your goal. (Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. Anyone want to send me a proposal on it?)
Restate your goal until you know from the bottom of your heart you’ve gotten to the bottom of your real reason to write.
Got it? Good. Now, using your favorite method, write it down several more times. Make it your marquee screensaver. Use felt and cut out little letters and paste them on cardboard. Get crayons and write in on construction paper. WordArt it in Microsoft and print it in four colors. Paste it everywhere you will be in a day. Everywhere. On the inside lid of your toilet if you must.
Here’s why: If you know WHY you want to write, the how will come much easier. I promise you that.
Secret Trick of Published Writers: Know Your Goal
Knowing why you really want to write is half the recipe for Gumption. Not to be confused with Gumbo. The other half, of course, is guts. You need the guts to overcome all the hurdles ahead. I promise you only this: their name will be Legion.
The Why you wrote down (and you did do it, didn’t you? If you aren’t going to follow directions, stop reading this article and give it to someone who actually does want to get published. I’m not making this stuff up and how many other people giving you advice have been responsible for the success of hundreds and hundreds of other writers? Exactly. Not many.) OK. The Why you wrote down and pasted all over your world is meant to give you the faith internally, but you’re also going to need to develop a thick skin externally – the outer shell. You can keep your soft, gentle artsy writer’s heart inside, your attachment to your work, your love for language, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff. But externally, you’re going to have to toughen up a little bit.
That’s guts. And that’s the next chapter.