I like writing lists. There’s something Zen about the practice. So I’ve drawn y’all a list of ten things you’ll need to get published. Even with these ten things, “the Deal’ is in no way guaranteed, and the list is far from complete. For starters, it’s missing “A fucking awesome agent” and “A shit-tonne of good luck”. But ten is a nice round number, and with these ten gems in your pocket, you stand a better chance of getting somewhere in this madhouse than with just a wing and a prayer.
So, without further foreplay, it would be lovely if you laid your grubby mitts upon:
A good, original idea: It’s hard to have a good idea, even harder to have an original one. The chances of doing both at the same time? Up there with finding a straight man who enjoys watching GLEE.
Sum up your book in a sentence, and then ask yourself if you can imagine people getting excited about it. “Everyday kid goes to Wizard School”. “Dystopian future where kids battle each other for public amusement”. “Futuristic warfare fought entirely by the elderly”. Those are cool ideas. They have “legs”, as marketing types might say over a round of chai lattes. Unfortunately, they’ve all been done, so you’ll have to think up your own. 😛
An interesting Protagonist: Let’s face it, your hero/antihero is going to carry the entire book on their shoulders. You could be the greatest writer in the world, but if your main character isn’t someone people want to spend time with, your book is doooomed. They don’t have to be likeable, heroic or even competent. But they need to be ‘readable’.
A good litmus test – If you bumped into your protagonist at a cocktail party, would you stick around to chat, or be looking for the first opportunity to hit the eject button? (Pro tip – I pretend I have a phonecall from my wife in these uncomfortable situations. Nobody is going to question you if you fumble in your pocket, look at your phone and say “Damn, it’s the missus…” . Unless she’s in the room of course, eyes on the ball FFS…)
An awesome enemy: Struggle will define your protagonist, and his/her’s conquest of their obstacles (or failure to do so) will be the meat of your book. The enemy doesn’t need to have murdered your protag’s parents or strangle kittens for lols. (the best villains are often the ones that the reader can sympathise with). But they do need to have clear motivations/mechanics, and concrete goals beyond “do something evil here to spice up this plot a bit”.
Quick note from the Kristoff headspace – Victory without sacrifice is meaningless. Your protag will very likely triumph over his/her enemy in some fashion at the end of your book. But if they get there without paying for it, your reader will feel cheated. Your reader must believe that there is a chance of failure. Victory must be paid for. When in doubt, adopt the Joss Whedon philosophy and start wasting secondary characters (“OMG, not Wasssssh!!!”). That’ll make the bastards sit up and pay attention.
A vague idea where you’re going: My thoughts on plot outlines have been set down previously. I firmly believe they are the fruit of Satan’s black loins. That said, you need to have a loose understanding of where all this is headed, or you’re going to wander forever in the Land of No Point. Even if it’s as loose as “Get to tha choppa by page 50” or broad brushstroke outlines of act structure.
When I started writing STORMDANCER, I knew exactly how it was going to end. I just needed to figure out how to get there. But having that goal clearly in mind along the way helped keep me on the winding but narrow path.
A quiet place: Silence in imperative. Not merely in an aural sense. To write, you need to be alone. Phonecalls, text messages, the interwebs, these are all distractions that can not only pull you from the page, but pull you from the moment – that sublime cluster of seconds where it all finally clicks and every single word you write is golden. That moment where the plot comes together in your head, and all the answers make themselves plain and say “fool, we were here all along, you just needed to get off the damn Twitter”.
Distractions are the writer’s enemy. First and foremost, above and beyond the demons of ‘the Block’ or ‘the Deadline’. Slay that shit.
An understanding with your partner: Writing takes time. A lot of it. You get to set your own pace when you’re pulling your first MS together. But believe me when I say that after it gets picked up (and it will get picked up, see point 10), you’re going to be one busy little beaver. Oscar Wilde said that books are never finished, they’re merely abandoned. Depending on the kind of person you are, you won’t abandon that sucker until the final bell.
Writing will take you away from other things. Things like your partner. Your household duties. Your kids. You need to have an understanding with your significant one before you embark upon this journey, because they’re going to see more of the back of your head than the front for a little while.
An ability to self-edit: You need to be able to look at the best paragraph you’ve ever written in your life and realise that it has no business being in your ms. You need to be able to take a scalpel to words you spent hours of your life agonizing over, sacrificing scenes for the sake of flow, subplots for the sake of clarity and entire characters for the sake of brevity. And you need to be able to do this by yourself, without needing anyone else to confirm your suspicions.
If you think it’s too long, it probably is. If you think a scene isn’t needed, it probably isn’t.
A kickass Beta: Your test audience should be more well-read than you. They should be smarter than you. They should have the ability to be brutally, curb-stompingly honest with you, and you need to be grown up enough to still be on speaking terms after they’ve doled out the harshness your MS requires.
Above all, you need to trust their instincts implicitly. This doesn’t mean you have to listen to everything they say. But you do need to share their opinions about what makes a book/film/program good. If you think TWILIGHT was utter pap, and your beta is part of the other 98% of the world’s population, this relationship, she will end badly.
The ability to walk away: You will be ultra excited when you finish the MS. You’ll want to send it out to agents RIGHT THIS SECOND.
Don’t. Put it away. In a box. Buried in your backyard with some Hired Goons standing watch over it. Don’t touch it for a month. Start writing something else, go out in the sunlight (ssssss!), have a drink. Do anything but poring over those words. You need perspective to see your mistakes. You need distance to see the details.
Belief: This is an absurd dream. The chances of getting a publishing deal are not awesome. My agent’s super-powered assistant slogs through 100+ slush queries per week, and my agent signs maybe 1 writer a year. I’ve heard that some agents get over 500 queries per week. 25,000 annually. The odds of actually getting a deal are even longer. Right up there with winning the lottery. But you have to believe you can do it. Because at first, no-one else will.
I’ve never taken a writing class. Never been to a writer’s conference. Never had a college roommate who turned out to be the editor of a big house, or learned a secret handshake. I am nobody, and I still did it. And you can too.
It takes hard work. Sweat and grinding teeth and sleepless nights, and days upon days of the most intense self-doubt you will ever know. You will feel blind. Utterly lost. Struggling through the throes of rejection with nothing but boiler plate to guide you forward. Every writer with a publishing deal does this. It is our baptism. And the only thing that got any of us through it was the belief that we could.
Beyond luck. Beyond talent. Beyond hard work. Before any and all of that, you need to believe you can. And with that belief (and that good luck and hard work) you can do anything.
So believe, motherfuckers.