Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Digging For Answers

This morning some of my writer friends are posting a link on FB to literary agent Chip McGregor’s blog. Chip’s post got my internal cogs turning again, thinking about the journey toward publishing. It reminded me of the writers who approach me because they think that I’ve got a magic wand to wave over their manuscript. I only wish.

For every manuscript pushed in my direction, I have another sad story of an emerging writer looking for a shortcut. The most painful ones are those who did somehow realize that they needed to first finish one. They worked feverishly, often at night or whatever hours they squeezed in after work, to complete a novel. They’ve somehow swallowed the myth that by finishing their novel, they will next meet an agent or an editor (or even more erroneously, a novelist) and sell their story.

There are many myths that writers swallow that set them up for failure. It’s because they attend a writers’ workshop, meet an editor, and then they’re told, “We would never look at a manuscript from an unpublished novelist unless it was finished.” Then that writer connects the wrong dots. What that editor should also say is that most writers must finish many, many stories before they sell their first one.

I was recently flooded with calls from writers who read an interview and then, finding my number is, yes, published, called me. First of all, let me say that I took the calls because so many hurting souls were touched by a personal story I’m sharing publically. I might steer them toward good counsel. But, over the phone or even in an email, I can’t do much good for a new writer. They sound so eager and breathless and unfortunately desperate to talk to an insider. I can scarcely get the words out before they’re cutting me off as if I haven’t heard repeatedly, to the tenth degree, their story. It's taken a lot of courage for them to call, I realize, but often they've not prepared their heart for the realities they're about to hear. They come after "answers" rather than knowledge. They've pulled out a spade and started digging in the wrong places. “

But I’ve finished this book. Don’t you understand?”

“Yes, I understand, but—“

“My pastor read this. He says it’s good.”

“Sell it to him.”

“My grandmother loves it too.”

“That’s nice.”

“If I could meet with you, say, once a week, you could help me shape this up.”

“I can’t. I have to keep writing myself.”

“What’s your editor’s telephone number?”

“She won’t even call me back,” I say, laughing, checking my watch. My page in front of me is not getting any more filled up with words as I listen very sympathetically to this person digging metaphorical holes to find a back way into publishing—through my fence.

“What’s her name then?”

“You should find an agent. They list their numbers publically.”

“What’s your agent’s name?”

“She isn’t taking on new writers.”

“But this is frustrating!”

“I’m sorry.”

Now you might begin to realize why authors stop answering their phones. We hate making perfect strangers mad at us. We need readers not enemies.

But to any new writer I offer this sound, dual advice: While you are attending writing workshops on crafting, also attend the workshops on publishing. A big part of the journey is learning to ask the right questions of the right people—and then stopping there and genuinely thanking them for sharing. You have to grow, not just your story, but your business savvy too. The writer’s way is a journey. Enjoy it for the imperfections of the terrain, the straining at the bit to learn one tiny bit of wisdom that cost you $450. plus travel expenses. If you really want it, as John Ortberg says, you’ll have to enter into a life of training. Go down the path of legitimacy and you will go far.