A few weeks ago I was speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting and I realized that my mini autobiography had morphed into a series of bullets that might be titled Don’t Do This: A writer’s Guide to Decades of Failure. As some of you will know, mine was a long road to getting published, and the gap between writing my first complete novel and getting one published was eight complete novels over a little over twenty years. It didn’t have to be that way, and for the next few weeks I’d like to steer you through some of the mistakes I made in the hope that your road to publication will be shorter and faster. The result, I trust will balance confessional blather about myself with stuff you can really store away and use.
I confess that some of what I will say here will be blindingly obvious to anyone who isn’t me, circa 1985, and this is as good a lead in as any to today’s item on the list.
Things I Did Wrong No: 1—Writing in a Vacuum.
No, I don’t mean drifting in the vastness of space (though it can feel like that). I mean writing by myself. I would start work on a project, hammer it out over a few months or so, polish it, and then send it out. I showed it to no-one but my girlfriend/fiancée/wife (remember we’re talking about a 20+ years span here), and maybe my parents. I had no Beta readers, no critique group, no literary support network, no writer pals, no creative writing classes.
What that meant was that for all the help and encouragement I got from my family (with the occasional note or suggestion), I wasn’t getting any kind of constructive response from someone who saw me simply as a writer. My family’s thoughts were inevitably complicated by their feelings for me, so the first people who read my book who were NOT already invested in it being good, were the agents and editors to whom I sent it.
This is not a recipe for success. As we all know, rejection letters tend to be light on specifics, so learning about what’s wrong with your work this way is like hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Most of the rejections (“Liked it, didn’t love it”) told me nothing, so I kept on puttering away at the same thing, baffled and feeling like I was shooting in the dark, never really knowing if my next project was any better than the last one.
The fact that you are reading this at all suggests you already have me beat. Back in the eighties there were books on writing but there wasn’t anything like this interactive medium unless it was actual people sitting down together, a place like MW where you can feel part of a community of shared interests. I didn’t know how to create such a community, or find one, did not even know what the value of such things was. But it’s worse than that. Because if someone had invited me to join a critique group, I almost certainly would have said no.
Some of that was a young writer’s arrogance: the surety that I basically knew what I was doing even if the powers that be in the publishing world had not recognized that yet. But more of it was the opposite: shyness and fear.
Many writers are private people. We take refuge in our heads and the stories we build there, stories we invent largely for our own amusement. The prospect of sending them out into the world, of losing control of them and putting them in the harsh glare of Other People’s Opinion is, frankly, terrifying. To this day, I get a rush of panic and anxiety when I offer a new piece for someone to look at (including sympathetic readers like my family, friends or agent). So it’s not surprising that I rather kept my work to myself, didn’t talk about it, didn’t ask other people things that might have helped me out, operating as if I might get published by stealth: telling no one until my face was plastered across the New York Review of Books.
I can’t imagine how much this slowed me down, but I know it did, and probably a lot. Even without formal instruction from which I might have learned basic principles, I missed out on the chance to get honest feedback, tips, bits of advice, criticism coming simply from someone who was interested in whether the book worked as a book, not whether they thought they could sell it. This is a crucial distinction, because for years I was able to hide behind the old lie that my work was good but not marketable.
We know this one. We use it all the time. I still do when I produce something I can’t sell, and I know that sometimes—SOMETIMES—it’s true.
But usually, it’s not.
Unless you are writing something truly experimental or generically very odd, there’s a market for it somewhere if it’s good. The trick is assessing that last bit: is it good? We all know readers whose advice is shaky or can’t be trusted, that it’s marked by jealousy, resentment or other factors which color their opinion. But we also know that there is no substitution for getting eyes on your work. I learned this the hard way. Writing is private. Publication isn’t. If you want your book to be something other than a file on your computer, if you want it out there where people can pick it up off a bookstore shelf, you have to share it with people you trust before sending it out. There’s no way round it. You have to swallow your pride, brace for impact, and learn. It’s the only way, and it may just help to get you in print a good deal faster than I did.