The One Indispensable Word of Advice for Writers


Four years ago, I’d completed two novels in a mystery/thriller series. There was a lot of media buzz about self-publishing, and I was on the fence as to whether to go that way or hold out for a traditional deal. Over the months that I hemmed and hawed over my dilemma, I sensed that the golden moment for self-publishing might have already passed. Everyone and his aunt seemed to be slapping a book up on Amazon. Book rankings on their site had swollen past 10 million. Self-publishing my novel and hoping to get any attention felt like casting a grain of sand into the ocean and hoping anyone would notice the ripples.

So, I held out for traditional publishing. My first novel Never Speak was finally released by TCK Publishing in January.  How it got there can be read either as a tale of remarkable persistence or pathological obsession.

I was lucky to have an agent, except I’d inherited him from my father. I’d been with him ten years with nothing to show. He took an earlier draft of Never Speak around to traditional publishers. The effect was akin to that grain of sand in the sea: the sole response, from one editor, was “clever.” I liked my agent personally, but it was time to move on.

I pulled on a handful of agent connections with no luck. So, I began work on the dreaded query letter—a single page designed to entice the interest of editors who receive thousands a year. One agent brags of signing 4 authors yearly out of 20,000 queries. Those are terrible odds. I’m not the only writer who’s found this one-page letter more difficult than writing a book.

I got up every morning for a month and wrote a letter. I waited until afternoon, read it, then threw it in the trash. I googled “query letter editor” and found a woman who seemed nice and not too pricey. After seven drafts back-and-fourth I began to wonder if maybe the trouble was not with the letter, but with the book itself. I hired this woman to edit the whole book. Meanwhile, I sent a copy to an old friend, the most successful writer I know, to see what he thought.

I took many of my editor’s suggestions, mostly about “show don’t tell” and adding what she called “action beats”—physical scene material that keeps characters from being disembodied talking heads. A few days after I got the finished edit back, my old writer friend sent me a ten-page email critique of the manuscript along with an apology for its lateness (he was working on a movie.)

The critique hit me at just the right time in my process of learning to write. Like all useful criticism, his points resonated in my in a series of “aha” moments. But this wasn’t nit-picking stuff. It went to the heart of the story. I re-wrote the entire book.

Armed with a new and twice-improved manuscript, I hit the query letter again and crashed into the same brick wall. I hired a new query letter editor. Nine months into the process I finally had a letter I could live with. My new editor also took a pass at the first fifty pages of the manuscript. If you get interest from a publisher they often want to see the first chapters. I took my editor’s suggestion of planting a hook at the end of the first chapter.

Using the free resource  QueryTracker, I queried 130 agents in the mystery/thriller genre. Rejections poured into my email every day. But over a few weeks I got over 15 “requests for the manuscript.” I was psyched. But then rejections of the full manuscript started rolling in. That was hard. But two months into the process I got my agent. And as they say, it only takes one.

Evan Marshall  has the knowledge and skills you get from 35 years agenting. He’d signed me on the basis of my second novel, but after reading the first we decided he should take it out to editors who didn’t see it the first time. I’d done a complete re-write, tearing it down to the studs, and it was a much better book.

Rejections from editors came in my email once or twice a week. Most seemed like form letters.  After several months I was losing hope. Meanwhile, I’d completed a third book in my series. Evan was thrilled by it. When he sent this book out we got personal responses. Most took the form of “While this is compelling I don’t like that.” There was no consistency to the complaints—they didn’t like the characters, the story, the pacing, or the writing.

These responses were clearly an improvement over the past, but something about getting so close got me crazy. With each rejection I felt my writer’s confidence sink a little further.

And then came TCK. They’re a new breed—a digital publisher. I won’t see my books in Barnes and Noble (if that’s still even a thing.) But I have a three-book deal with TCK. They provide full editing services. They’re experts at marketing using the Amazon machine (and believe me, it’s one complicated beast.) I’m still doing a lot of marketing myself, but these days that would be true if I were with a traditional publisher. And the TCK royalty split is better than with the traditional outfits.

There’s a ton of advice online about how to get published, and lots of best-selling books about how to write a bestseller. There’s good advice and bad, and much that falls into the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

But if someone tells you to persist, you can never go wrong.

My novel NEVER SPEAK is published!
Order it here 
Visit my website

Views: 129

Comment by Doc Vega on March 5, 2019 at 11:26am

I published three novels in 2003 to positive reviews but to one vanity publisher and 1 mutually invested publisher. I was hoping to get some attention and has one conventional publisher say they liked the novel but didn't know where it would fit in their bookshelves. I think the whole things is rigged and that there is a very narrow window of acceptance. Couple that with a more and more ADD disinterested public that contributes to this declining industry and unless you're a dead celebrity it all seems impossible!

Comment by John Manchester on March 5, 2019 at 11:46am

Doc, I can't argue with you. I was in the music business for years and thought it was tough. It's a walk in a sunny park next to the writing biz.

Comment by Robert B. James on March 5, 2019 at 12:56pm

Thanks for you post John, and for your writing. I do not know where I’d be without stories to hear and tell. 

Comment by Ron Powell on March 5, 2019 at 2:08pm

@Doc; "I think the whole things is rigged and that there is a very narrow window of acceptance...and unless you're a dead celebrity it all seems impossible!"

In case you hadn't noticed...
Publishers no longer market or sell "writing" they participate in the monetization of name recognition...

Comment by Maui Surfer on March 5, 2019 at 2:14pm

YES, this IS a writer's site. 

I have only once or twice admitted I'm published ... all I can say is what Cicero did, "Rome is full geniuses, but very few persevere."

Comment by Ron Powell on March 5, 2019 at 2:17pm

If you don't have a "name" that can be recognized and identified and associated with a current event or trend, you may persist, but persistence doesn't pay the rent/mortgage or grocery bill...

Persistence alone is not enough..

Subsistence helps...

Write to and for yourself...often...

A whole lot of good luck never hurt anybody...

Being in the right place at the right time is about all you can hope for....

Persist, yes, but keep your day job...

Comment by Maui Surfer on March 5, 2019 at 2:36pm

Persevere, never quit; write about what you KNOW.

Comment by Doc Vega on March 5, 2019 at 7:11pm

3 novels 2 poetry books and also have donated many of my works to the USO for the troops. Writing since 1984 while raising 4 kids by myself. Dedication? Indeed!

Comment by Maui Surfer on March 5, 2019 at 7:54pm

I concede you can write poetry well, which is difficult. Too bad most of it is poor poor pitiful me stuff.

Now, if you could just get that Tin Foil out of your Tom Petty knock off hair you might pick up some positive vibes from the beauty of the Universe.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 6, 2019 at 6:26am

I took a creative writing course a few years back given by a published local author.  It was informative and depressing.  She taught writing a novel as though it was a formulaic process. < Each chapter must answer a question and ask a new question.  The principle dilemma has to be broached in the first third of the book.  The characters - even the villain - have to have something that the reader can like or respect. > ETC.

I was interested in writing science-fiction/fantasy and the instructor was turned off by the genre.  It was educational and caused me to turn away.

I admire your persistence.  That is what is required above all else.  I have a friend whose daughter is published and is working on her third novel.  She has been a middle school teacher and writes books for that age group.  As Maui Surfer said, write about what you know.  When McCall describes the process of writing, submitting manuscripts, revising manuscripts, appearing at a kiosk in the mall, rejections, rejections, rejections I know that she is in the right business and I would not have done well there.

I have a friend who writes, has an agent in New Zealand, and seems to accept the vagaries of the process.  He is a character who was a child actor, movie director, and now is a writer.  His life has been one of getting a role, acting, becoming unemployed, applying for unemployment benefits, finding a new gig, and doing it all over again.  I don't think that he has ever had a long term job.  His wife is a make-up artist and stays employed all of the time.  Everyone has to find their own way.

Thanks for sharing the journey with us.


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