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5 Lies Unpublished Writers Tell Themselves (and the Truths That Can Get Them Published)

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns, Queries and Synopses and Proposals.

Writers tend to be creative in many areas of life, so it’s no surprise that we can get creative with the truth. Or, as my mother said, “You lie a lot.” This is especially tempting when we are debating why we aren’t published. Before I was a published author, I embraced a few cherished lies because they blunted the pain of rejection. But the road to publication required discarding these lies and facing reality. Here are five lies I believed before I was published:

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

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Guest column by Matt Mikalatos, freelancer,
and author of the novel IMAGINARY JESUS
(BarnaBooks, April 2010) as well as the fantasy
THE SWORD OF SIX WORLDS (Dec, 2012).
See his website here.





1. THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO ME.

I write amazing first drafts. If there were a contest for first drafts, mine would win every time. So I told myself, “Writing is not rewriting.” Other people might have to do multiple drafts, but my first drafts are so solid I could publish them as-is. For years I believed this.

One day I did three drafts of an article, and it became my first published article. A solid first draft is not good enough to be published. All those “rules of writing” that you read in Writer’s Digest, on blogs, and in creative writings classes are rules because they are true most of the time. So if there are some rules that you think don’t apply to you, think again. It might be the rule preventing you from getting published.

2. AGENTS AND EDITORS HAVE IT IN FOR ME.

Ah, those blood-sucking agents and editors. I’m pretty sure they have meetings in a secret underground lair where they talk about how jealous they are of my writing skills and how they should team up to keep me from being published.

This is a lie that is so prevalent among unpublished writers that editors and agents have to go to psychologists so they can feel good about themselves again. I know one editor who calls herself “Dream Crusher” to assuage her pain. Here’s the truth: Editors and agents desperately want you to be good enough. They make a living by writers being publishable. If you’re getting rejected it’s because you still have work to do. either as a writer or as a marketer.

3. I’M NOT A MARKETER, I’M A WRITER!

Which is exactly why you aren’t published yet. You have to do the hard work of writing a spectacular query and proposal. Notice that you have to “write” the query and proposal. You’re not being asked to do an interpretive dance or draft blueprints to a rocket ship. It might not be your style, and it might be hard work, but being a published author is hard work, complete with e-mails you don’t want to answer, deadlines, accounting and marketing!

4. I SHOULD SPEND A LOT OF TIME FANTASIZING OVER WHERE I WILL BE PUBLISHED NOW THAT I’VE WRITTEN TWO CHAPTERS OF MY NOVEL.

It is way more fun to read Writer’s Market over and over—memorizing the publishers and agents—than it is to write your book. And while this is good practice for when your book is ready to shop, if the fantasy-to-writing ratio tips toward fantasy, it’s time to get back to writing. Unless you are writing a fantasy, in which case you are probably fine and keep up the good work.

(Learn how to start your novel.)

5. I’M A BETTER WRITER THAN MOST PUBLISHED AUTHORS.

If you’re like me, you love picking up a book from the “Top 10″ rack, flipping it open and cringing at the terrible prose. But this author (who is, keep in mind, a worse writer than you) somehow got a contract, got published and is selling well. I said this most often before I had finished writing the first draft of my first novel. Perhaps it’s just that the “hack writers” out there actually finish their books.

Here’s an exercise: Find a writer online who is published but far inferior to you as a writer. Look at what magazines they are published in. Then write stories or articles to submit to those magazines. This is a guaranteed way to build your writing resume. Unless—they are actually better writers than you, in which case, it’s a good reality check.

These are a few of the lies that I wish someone had confronted me with when I was an unpublished writer. Now, here’s one last truth for you: You can do this. Work hard, keep writing, improve your craft and be persistent. We’re all waiting to read your masterpiece!

 

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34 Responses to 5 Lies Unpublished Writers Tell Themselves (and the Truths That Can Get Them Published)

  1. svennielsen says:

    Great article with good points. I’m an editor at a small publishing house in Denmark and there’s nothing more I would love than to fulfil the dream of every aspiring author. But we simply don’t have the time and much of the stuff we receive is… well just not good enough. Instead I have focused my career (i’m retired now, but still owner of the company) on pursuing one single writer, I have big hopes for. It’s nice to be able to focus and for once just follow one single person and his endeavors. Not sure what comes out of it, but it’s a very exciting way to work.

  2. bourgman says:

    Here’s another truth: Hack writing sells because hack readers buy books. People don’t read books to feel stupid. If your prose is too heady, it will make people feel stupid and they won’t buy it. I think publishers understand this. If you want to write literary masterpieces, stick to the academic literary pubs. If you want to sell a million novels, hack up your work a bit.

  3. roadwarriorcal says:

    Whoa, Nelly! Looks like I’ve been busted. I was just complaining to my cousin about all the
    “crap” I’ve read lately that’s so inferior to my unpublished “masterpiece.” Thanks for calling me out on that one.

  4. Will Lutwick says:

    These “lies” might have been relevant ten years ago, but the publishing business has changed radically since then. You don’t even mention self-publishing which is the only real possibility for all those except writers with a significant platform, celebrity status, a successful publishing history, or connections in the publishing business. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but they prove the rule is no lie.

    I know of someone who is a great developmental editor, has an MFA, teaches writing courses, and has had traditionally published books on how-to-write published in the past—and she couldn’t get an agent for her excellent first novel that came out a couple of months ago.

    Ten years ago I queried 100 agents per their specs for my novel. 17 wrote back requesting more of the book, and I was able to get an agent, although she was a sham (no lie) and the book wasn’t published.

    About two years ago I had completed a memoir, a better book than the novel, queried 100 agents, and not a single one was interested in reading more of the book. So I self-published Dodging Machetes. Since its release last year it has received unanimous raves from professional critics and readers’ reviews, has won one award, and is a finalist for another. Yet I couldn’t get an agent to even look at it. Were my query letters that bad? I don’t think so. I had my query letters edited by two separate Writer’s Digest editors. Not to mention I have some professional marketing in my career background.

    If Shakespeare, Dickens, Stein, and Steinbeck were starting out now, they would be unlikely to land a traditional publisher and their work would probably never be discovered.

    Or is that another lie, I tell myself?

    • Hi Will. This article isn’t a traditional vs. self publishing article, and I think it stands the test of time perfectly well and is still true today.

      I will say that the statement “self-publishing which is the only real possibility for all those except writers with a significant platform, celebrity status, a successful publishing history, or connections in the publishing business” is simply not true. I didn’t have any of those things when I first tried to break in. I *did* cultivate a publishing track record by getting some magazine articles published, and I did get some “connections” by trying to get in to publishing. But those are things I went out and got for myself. I earned them, and others can easily do the same.

      That’s not to say that there aren’t great books passed over by agents or editors. Sometimes the question “Can I sell this?” overshadows the quality of the book (this works both ways… terrible books that might sell get picked up, great ones that might not get passed over).

      Shakespeare was a playwright and you’re right, he would have a hard time getting his folios into Barnes and Noble. But that was never his genre. He wasn’t a novelist, and his plays would easily be produced today. Or at least he would be doing made-for-tv-movies.

      As for Dickens, he started in newspaper and would have no problem doing it again today.

      Stein is one of those celebrities you mentioned. She had great friends in the scholastic (william James), artistic (Matisse and Picasso) and literary communities (and in fact started a thriving literary community in Paris with her brother). Since she started her publishing career with poetry, yes, there’s probably less of a (paying) market for verbal cubism today.

      Steinbeck’s first novel was published by McBride and Co and had a print run of only 1,500 copies. I guarantee you one of the smaller literary presses would gladly pick up a writer of his caliber and relative obscurity right now.

      So, yeah… I think you sweep the “great authors can’t be discovered today” brush over the past pretty easily. All four of the writers you mention became best-sellers in their own lifetimes, and we have plenty of analogs for them in today’s publishing world.

      Obviously I can’t speak to why agents passed over your novel or your queries, and I have no doubt that you are an excellent writer. I have no issue with self-publishing or those who choose to do it, it’s a perfectly valid choice.

  5. Kerr Berr says:

    Love #2! Good grief, Charlie Brown, I’ve been blacklisted, lol.

    They privately tweet each other, warning colleagues to stay away from that guy, for crying out loud. Batten down the hatches, he must NOT be published!

    I’m still laughing. I joked to a fellow published writer that I’d been blacklisted (laughing as I said it), and she laughed and said, “Now THAT’S paranoia!”

    • Ha ha. That’s funny. The only people I’ve heard of getting “black listed” are people who are enormous jerks or unprofessional in some way, and then it’s more like water cooler gossip. Someone will say, “I got a query from this guy who seemed insane” and the other agent will say, “MIkalatos? Stay away from him. He’s nuts. He sent a knife to my office, covered in red syrup.” Don’t get in a business relationship with that guy!

      Agents want you to be successful. It’s how they get paid. They are desperately hoping that we writers will do something amazing.

  6. hotwriter says:

    You left one out. The biggest lie writers tell themselves and we have all been there.

    Novels and short stories write themselves.

    By that I mean, that the longer we procrastinate, the more we convince ourselves that the stories will be magically perfect by the time we return to our dusty manuscripts. They need to be edited or revised by a human hand and with sweat and effort. But the thought of facing said dusty manuscripts turns our ribs to jelly and our stomachs to limp seaweed till we finally can’t stand it anymore and attack our writing. Then we feel better.

  7. Just saw this guest post and love it. Seriously. I. Love. It.

  8. I agree with Maryann. The people who need this most are the same people that will not read it, because they don’t believe they need to.

    If anything, I am on the opposite end of the spectrum about the first draft being good. I did at least nine or ten revisions on my short story before I let a critique group look at it.

    Thanks for the information Matt. I think most people could use a good slap in the face once in awhile, snap them back to reality.

  9. Ben says:

    You say: Find an author who you think you are better than, and submit some pieces to the publications they are featured in. This is a guaranteed way to boost your resume.

    However: I was lucky enough to hear some advice from a prominent lit mag editor. He said do not submit writing to journals that usually publish stuff that you don’t like. They will likely reject your writing because they are looking for something different (something you deem inferior). Instead, submit to publications that publish writing you respect, are interested in, and strive for. These publications will more likely match your writing style.

    Thanks!

  10. Eden Bradley says:

    Loved this article! A funny, approachable way to share some of the hard truths with aspiring authors.
    Writing IS a business. While the idea of hiring a professional editor to edit our manuscripts and some other sort of pro to write our query letters sounds good in theory, the fact remains that most of us can’t afford to hire a professional editor. And frankly, if I can’t line edit myself and be bothered to learn to write a solid query letter, I don’t deserve to be published.
    We must be multi-taskers in order to survive this industry. The plain fact IS that you must do more than simply write a good book, and that only gets more complicated after you’ve sold. I think it’s a good idea to have as much information going in as possible-whether you’re writing a book or doing anything else. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s certainly not the path to success.

  11. This is good advice. In my early writing days, I made some of these errors myself. And I see some others on writers’ blogs. I’m not going to get there by blaming anyone else or fantasizing where I want to be. It’s hard work.

  12. Miko Holt says:

    Chuck thank you so much, I’m going to mention how great this piece is on my site. I laughed so hard! So true!

  13. Steve says:

    I must disagree on a couple of your points.

    You say:

    I write amazing first drafts. If there were a contest for first drafts, mine
    would win every time. So I told myself, "Writing is not rewriting." Other
    people might have to do multiple drafts, but my first drafts are so solid I
    could publish them as-is. For years I believed this.

    I say:

    The late Robert Heinlein, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest SF authors of all time, gave as one of his four points of advice to writers "Never rewrite except to editorial order". I’m not sure why the people making up rules about the need to rewrite think they know more than him. How does their track record compare?

    You say:
    "I’M NOT A MARKETER, I’M A WRITER!"

    I say:

    Well, as much as it may hurt to admit it, there’s a reason civilized society is based on division of labor. There’s a reason why writing and marketing are widely considered disparate professions. The two professions require different skill sets, and to some extent a different outlook on life. Some extraordinary talented individuals may be blessed with the ability to do both well. For us mere mortals, we focus on what we are good at, and hire professionals to do what we need done that we ourselves may not be qualified for. Some writers who produce publishable manuscripts also write effective queries, which is why manuscripts ever get published. However, some do not have the necessary capabilities in this area. What is needed is a class of professionals who will write queries for hire, for those who do not have the skill or inclination to write their own. I would imagine this could be an adjunct to professional editing services.

    -Steve

    • Hannah O says:

      I think you confuse a first draft with what has happened after you have rewritten and rewritten, and feel your work is strong enough to be sent out. Heinlein was most likely talking about when you’ve done all you can do and are happy with your story, not when it’s been accepted for publication and your editor wants you to change the whole scope of your story to make it more sellable.

      A first draft basically is what you pour out on paper- or Word document- with excitement or deep struggle, and what’s left after you plod through plot and grammar and character consistency and common sense and whatnot. You heave a sigh of relief and open a bottle of wine to celebrate finishing your work.

      But it’s still a first draft. You cringe at unfinished sentences, mix-ups with names, stilted conversations. You don’t send if off without going back to check for those and more: you check for typos, change whole sentences and paragraphs and- gulp!- even pages. You often change words you thought were great when you used them, you grimace at dialogue- so many things to be done. And you rewrite. And rewrite. And as you do so, it becomes a second draft, then a third….

  14. Annette Lyon says:

    Amen five times over!

    We all fall into one of those traps at some point–even AFTER getting published. Great reminders.

  15. Great tips! Loved #1.

    Whenever I write my outline for a novel, I think it’s the best thing in the world. I get giddy and excited and go a little nuts. Then a day or two passes and I realize that this amazing outline I wrote may not last until the end of the novel.

    I think what is important is tapping into that excitement because that gives you the energy to write, and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite.

    And I would really love if I could present my query as an interpretive dance. I’m all for performance art.

  16. #3 is my favorite. Marketing should happen long before "Once upon a time" hits the page or screen. That’s how you build a platform and improve your chances of finding a publisher.

  17. Great post! If ever I’m feeling down, I will now comfort myself by saying "At least I don’t have to present my query as an interpretive dance." :)

  18. Maryann says:

    Terrific post. Sadly, a lot of would-be writers who need to read this probably won’t.

  19. GREAT post!!!! Made me laugh!!

  20. Chuck says:

    That typo was not his fault. It was mine :-p

  21. Aimee says:

    5 out of 5 for the win.

  22. Awesome article. I can relate to it, just how I used to feel about writing.

    I hate to be a stickler, but…

    "A solid first draft is not good enough to be published."

    Gets demonstrated:

    "5. I’M A BETTER WRITER THAT MOST PUBLISHED AUTHORS."

    Ahem…

  23. Lynn Rush says:

    OMG, this is great.
    I’m with you, Elizabeth.

  24. Anna Fani says:

    This is a very interesting article. I used to be definitely guilty of point no 3 but my outlook has changed dramatically in the last year. Love your blog.

  25. You have got to be kidding. Are there authors who really tell themselves these things? Are they nuts?

  26. Kristan says:

    Great "myth busting" and pep talk. I think #3 is particularly relevant in this day an age.

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