Arrghhh. Math in a writing book. Sorry, but it's the best way I can explain this concept. What this formula means is that just because you can go to the bookstore and buy a best-selling book written by so-and-so, the famous writer, that does not mean you can write a similar book and get it published.
Ahh, now you're really mad at me. I'm contradicting what I wrote in the last chapter. No, I'm not. What I'm talking about is those people who sit there and complain that their book is just as good as such and such and, damn it, they should not only be published but have a bestseller. Also, those people who look at book number 5 from a best-selling author and complain about how bad it is. Yes, there are many book number 5's from best-selling authors that if they were book number 1 from a new author, would not get published. But the primary thing that sells a book is author's name. I've always said Stephen King could write a book about doing his laundry and it would be on the bestseller list. Stephen King earned being Stephen King and to misquote a vice-presidential debate, I've read Stephen King and you ain't no Stephen King. Neither am I.
Another thing people do is they see a technique used in a novel and use the same technique, and then get upset when told it doesn't work. They angrily point to the published book that has the same technique and say, "SEE." Unfortunately, what they don't see is that that technique is part of the overall structure of the novel. It all ties together. I said in a previous chapter to do a book dissection to study various aspects and techniques and I still stand by that; however, I also remind you of the story of Frankenstein. Just because you can put all the pieces together, that doesn't mean you can necessarily bring it to life. There are some techniques that only work when put in context of other parts of the novel; thus using it in isolation can be a glaring problem. You can't take the type of beginning of one bestseller, tie it in with flashback style from another, and have a similar flashy ending as another and expect the novel to automatically work.
Every part of a novel is a thread connected to all the other parts. Pull on one piece and you pull on them all. Tear apart a novel or a movie and see the pieces, but then be like a watchmaker and see if you can put them all together again as the writer did and if you understand why they go back that way.
It is also more important to figure out what is working and why rather that what you feel didn't work in a book you read. An attitude that will serve you little good is the "There's so much crap on the shelves in the bookstore." I admit that there are times when I am looking for something to read, and I stand in the local supermarket looking a the paperbacks, that I really can't find anything I want to read or that sparks an interest. But that doesn't automatically mean it's all crap.
I had to do this many times. I'd read something I might not like, but it seems to be selling quite well. Instead of dismissing the rest of the world as stupid, I try to find what it is about the book that people like. That doesn't mean I'm going to do the same thing, but it does broaden my horizon.
I don't think there is anything wrong with a little fire burning deep inside believing you are better than those people getting published, but I think that's the sort of thing that should be used to fuel your writing, not expressed loudly so everyone can hear it.
John Gardner once said that every book has its own rules. Remember that when you examine a book to see what you can learn from it. Look at the parts from the perspective of that book's specific rules.
I think Henry Ford uttered the famous line: Never complain, never explain. This applies in the writing world in several ways.
One thing I do when I critique material is ask a lot of questions. I tell my students, 'Hey you don't have to answer those questions to me' (in fact I would prefer they don't), but rather they are to get the students to think. What I don't tell them is that the more questions I have to ask, the worse job they've done.
The reason I don't want answers is because you don't get any opportunities to explain your book once it's on the shelf in a store. You also don't get any opportunities to explain your submission when it's sitting on an agent's or editor's desk. So if they don't "get it" the first time around, they won't get it. Get it? All your explanations and defenses mean nothing because you not only won't get the chance to say them, you shouldn't get the chance to say them.
I've gotten five page long, single-spaced letters back from students answering my questions or challenging points I made and my reaction is that such letters are a waste of paper. If I couldn't figure it out from the material, it needs to be rewritten. This ties in with my theory about the original idea. If you can't tell me what your story is about in one, maybe two sentences, and I understand it from that, then you are going to have a hell of a hard time selling it. You don't get to put those letters in the front of your published book.
The never complain comes from the fact that there are people running this business. You won't agree with some things, particularly rejections, but do not complain or write nasty letters, make obnoxious phone calls, send dirty faxes, etc. etc. Because you never know when you are going to run into those people again. My first book was published by a publisher that had rejected my own query reference that same book. I had disagreed strongly with some of the things they put on that first rejection letter, still do as a matter of fact, but I ate it and drove on. If I had sent them a nasty letter, methinks they would have remembered me and not even considered the manuscript when my agent submitted it.
I even find this with students I've worked with. They get angry and upset with my comments or questions. And they let me know it. What they don't understand is the fact that their anger expressed that way will get them nowhere. Take the energy and put it into your book, which is the only place it will do you any good.
Agent Richard Curtis' first piece of advice in his book Beyond the Bestseller to writers consists of a few simple words: "Keep your big mouth shut."
The longer I have been doing this for a living, the more I realize the profundity of those words. Go ahead, laugh. But here is the golden rule that I take out of those words: If an action you plan to take, words you plan to utter, a letter you want to write, could have anything other than a positive reflection back on you, DON'T DO IT. Negativity begets negativity. Acting out of anger, frustration, righteous indignation, etc. will bite you in the butt, to put it mildly.
It is hard sometimes not to react. I believe publishing is a very poorly run business in many aspects. And those bad business decisions in New York can adversely affect you. They can destroy you in some cases. But you have to drive on and you have to accept that you, by yourself, are not going to change the entire publishing industry. Also, you can take comfort, if you want, in the fact that the business is in the throes of change as I explain in Chapter 37.
At one publishing house, I have been through five editors over the course of three years. I've had half-a-dozen people assigned to me as my "publicist." None of my publicists returned my phone calls for the first two years. For my most recent book from that publisher my assigned publicist never even bothered to give me a courtesy phone call to tell me all the things they weren't going to do to promote the book.
For the same publisher I submitted an outline for my next book. I asked for feedback on the outline and received none. So I wrote the book and turned it in. Then got a phone call a couple of weeks later saying the book didn't go in the direction they envisioned for my series. Was I angry? Yes. My gut reaction was to tell them it would have been good to have heard that when they sat on the outline for half a year, before I wrote a book that faithfully followed the outline.
What did I do? I kept my mouth shut and listened. And I realized that, ultimately, they were right. The book was going in the wrong direction. I spent three weeks, seven days a week, totally rewriting the manuscript and produced basically a new book. It sucked doing that. I didn't get paid any more money for doing it. But what were my options? Scream and yell and rant and rave? And then what? And, getting back to admitting you're wrong, their way was better than the way I had been going.
Most of the time, I have found that comments made by editors and agents, even when I very much disagreed with them initially, turned out to be very worthwhile. I never respond to anything right away. I always take some time to digest it.
At the same time, with the same publisher, they screwed up my royalty check (and it was their mistake) and issued it two weeks late, which almost cost me the closing date on the house I was trying to buy; plus the check was short money they owed me. Did I call up my editor and scream? No. I sent a polite letter detailing the situation and sucked it up.
I'm not saying be a patsy. Or go along with every single thing you are told. But I am saying don't shoot yourself in the foot and understand reality. They didn't sit there at the publishing house and decide to screw up the royalty check on purpose, even though paranoid people like us writers like to believe such things.
For example, I am often asked how long a writer should wait to hear back on a query/submission to an agent or publishing house. My answer: Forever.
I'm not being a smart-ass with that answer. Rather I am defining the reality of the situation. What are you going to do if you don't hear back in two months? Send another letter to be ignored? Move on.
I said above that publishing is poorly run, but that doesn't mean the people who run the business are incompetent. Like many other businesses, publishing goes through changes and it takes time for bureaucracies to catch up to change.
One of the bitter realities of being a writer is that you have very little leverage. If something isn't happening the way you would like, there is little you can do. In the past year, several major writers, flagship writers who carry publishing houses— who have leverage—have switched publishers. They didn't do it over money, they did it over the way they perceived the publisher was treating them. How much publicity effort they were getting. When I discuss the publishing business I will get into more detail about this area.
I stated earlier that this is an emotional business. If you want to succeed you have to have positive emotions working for you. This is very difficult for many writers. I switched agents because the original agent I had, while good, was a little too negative. I realized I had enough negative traits on my own (as you can see by reading between the lines on some of these pages). I didn't need my agent to amplify my negativity. I switched to an agent who is more confident and positive. Who also, coincidentally, is the most professional individual I've worked with in this business as far as correspondence and doing what he says he's going to do. However, he also doesn't 'hold my hand'. He expects me to be a professional and deal with the emotional issues of this business on my own. But he is also like a psychologist in that he leaves me alone a lot to figure things out on my own after giving me a few comments to chew on. Many people want the 'answer' right up front, but they don't realize they're not ready to accept the answer yet. In the same manner there are things in this book that you intellectually understand, but emotionally disagree with. I have often found that the things I most strongly react to with negative emotions are the things I need to pay most attention to.
Another aspect of this comes whenever you read a book or see a movie. Stop trying to find what's wrong with it and try to figure out what is working. It's easy to be a negative critic—much harder to find the elements that were successful. I believe that learning to do this was a significant achievement for me. I used to look at some best-selling novelists and think their work was totally worthless. Because of that, I failed to look hard enough to see the things in that work that was worthwhile and well done.
I recently got a letter from a student where the student first told me all the things he didn't like. He didn't like thrillers. He didn't like horror. He didn't like serial killer books, etc. etc. etc. My first reaction was why is this guy telling me this? Second, what good is it doing him to know what he doesn't like? Third, some of what he doesn't like could teach him a lot about writing. Fourth, he was telling me, in so many words, he didn't like what I wrote. Not a good way to start a working relationship.
The bottom line is I've learned to shut my mouth even if I have to bite my tongue in half to do it.
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