Well, okay, there are a lot of reasons. Some people simply don’t have the skill, talent, passion, will, guts it takes to be a professional writer. Almost everyone can write, and I am always the first to say that everyone SHOULD write, for their own pleasure, and sanity, and self-illumination. But a pro writing career is something only for the truly insane. I mean, driven.
And yet… I think we all know people who have the talent and the drive and still are not published. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I can think of. It is not just uncomfortable, it is literally painful for me to see talented friends and acquaintances who I know have the goods and are still struggling to find agents, publishing deals, screenwriting sales.
Now, this is very, very often self-sabotage. I certainly see people who refuse to “play the game”, even though the game is part of the job. I see people who are crippled by the thought of any kind of rejection, or stopped by the very first or first few rejections, even though rejection is part of the job. I see people who submit directly to editors because they think they don’t need an agent, or are too impatient to go through the process of acquiring an agent, even though having a good agent is a vital part of the job. I see people who jump at the first offer of representation they get, even though they know nothing about that agent, who can then burn that writer’s chances with that book by submitting to the wrong people, or pretending to submit, or by just being such an obvious fraud that no one will read his or her submissions anyway. I see people who just give up and turn bitter and bilious. I see people who simply don’t think that anything good is ever going to happen to them, consequently it never does. We all have our demons, and some more than others.
But after last week at Pen to Press in New Orleans, teaching a dozen amazing writers, I now know that there are phenomenally talented writers out there who do have the goods, and the drive, and the faith in themselves, and they still need help – not on their writing, because that’s there in spades – but on all that OTHER part of the job. I guess it just finally dawned on me how much marketing is involved in getting a book deal to begin with.
This may seem like a stupid and obvious revelation to some of you – I’m certainly not above being stupid and obvious! My excuse is that I’ve been doing the sales part of writing for so long that it doesn’t even occur to me how much of a salesperson I am. For a screenwriter, pitching is the only way to get a job – even if you write and sell an original script all on your own, you still have to pitch to get to a point of writing the next draft with the producers/studio who bought it. So coming as I do from screenwriting, writing a synopsis, writing a query letter, pitching my next project to my agent and editor, doing radio and TV interviews – all of those are just variations on sales pitches. We say “pitch” but really, we’re leaving out that critical word, aren’t we? What we’re talking about is a sales pitch.
I’ve said this before but one of the most amazing things to me about the publishing world, as opposed to Hollywood, is that agents and editors actually come to conferences LOOKING for new authors, and an aspiring author can sign up for pitches with really great agents and move herself to the top of the submissions pile at various agencies. It’s a miraculous process and we’re lucky to have it.
But after the Pen to Press workshop I understand better why some talented people don’t get published: they can write like crazy, but they have no idea how to tell someone what’s actually IN their fabulous book once they’re finished with it.
Really. It’s weird. Like seeing people struggle with a foreign language.
The emphasis of this particular conference was to get authors ready to pitch and submit their completed manuscripts, and now I know how enormously necessary that kind of coaching is. Because I couldn’t tell my students a thing about HOW to write. I could be taking classes from THEM on that. But it took a good four very full days for me and my fantastic co-instructor, Scott Nicholson, to coax the actual storylines out of most of our students and show them how to put those storylines into synopsis and pitch form. When they started, we were getting vague descriptions of books that were “A young man’s journey from adolescence to adulthood” and “A multigenerational family saga about the ravages of racism”. (Hint: that’s not your story, that’s a subgenre). We had to get them to tell their stories to us, character by character, conflict by conflict, revelation by revelation, climax by climax, just as if they were sitting around a campfire, so that they could go tell those stories to agents. But once they got it, they really got it – we were blown away by the power of their pitches, and apparently so were the agents, who made multiple requests for material.
It was so very enlightening to me to see how people who can write rings around me could be so clueless (and I say that with love…) about the next step in the publishing process.
So I guess my point is this. We are very lucky to have such phenomenal resources in the book world – conferences like Pen to Press and the Southern California Writers’ Conference (which I know is also a particularly good one for workshopping), and websites like Backspace where you can get instant and intensive feedback on query letters, synopses, first chapters – and online critique groups like Sisters in Crime’s celebrated Guppies. If you’re not published yet, or if you are but you have talented friends who don’t seem to be getting to the pro level, then please consider that you or your friends might have no idea to SELL what you or they write, and as much as you might think you know, a good professional workshop or online group could be the thing that breaks you through the concrete ceiling.
My PSA for the day.
(It is going to be 100 degrees in Raleigh today. Yike. Good thing I’m doing nothing but writing today, right?)
So can others recommend great workshops, sites, resources on selling, pitching, querying?
And I think it’s my month for the signed book giveaways, so if you’re looking for something spooky to take to the beach, all commenters are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE.