Saturday, January 02, 2010

Two percent

The title of the post echoes a plaintive wail from the comment column on my year end stats for full novels.

It's actually more like 1.6% (2:124) but you're in the ballpark.

But I don't think of the 122 novels I did NOT sign as failures.

For starters, 9 of them just weren't right for me but got a referral. If you think of that as failure, we've got a very different perspective on what failure is.

9 got sent back with detailed notes and an invite to resubmit. That sure as heck isn't failure!

1 got "not this, but the next one", and that's sure as heck also not failure.

But more important than the numbers, it's what you do with them.

There are two ways to look at these results: you, the writer, made progress toward your goal, or you didn't. If you didn't, you use the information you learned in the process to figure out what to change so you'll make progress the next time. If you define failure as not achieving your goal, even good progress is defined as failure, and that's just a recipe for total frigging insanity.

If I were a writer looking at those stats, the first thing I'd want to make sure is that I'm writing something fresh and new. So, how do you know that? You don't just write something and assume its fresh and new cause you've never seen it used. Nope.

What you do is what Joe Finder did when he started his writing career. He read 200 thrillers. He researched what his genre looked like. Lee Child did the exact same thing. He had a very measured, thoughtful approach to creating Jack Reacher, from his name to his background. And Lee Child continues his voracious reading to this day. I purposely stalk him in the dealer room at Bouchercon to hear what he has to say about authors: he's an excellent writer, but he's a GREAT reader.

If I were a writer looking at those stats, I'd make sure I had fierce beta critics on my team. Fierce critics who would make me want to bathe in medicinal scotch at the end of their critique, but critics who would identify structural problems or voice problems, or plot problems.

If I were a writer looking at those stats, I'd say "Good. Now I know what the challenges are." And then I'd make my 2010 resolution: Get Fierce.


Sarah Allen said...

Great post! As an aspiring writer I desperately need this insider info and encouragement. Thanks!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Get Fierce just added to my post-it with Choose Confidence and Play Your Game.

laughingwolf said...

yes, and just like the best screenwriter tip: grab your viewer [reader] by the throat in the opening scene, and don't let go til 'fade to black' [the end]

Josin L. McQuein said...

I wonder how big the gulf between what you like and what people think you like actually is.

In my case (one of those rejected after a little extra time to consider)another agent had suggested I query you with something he didn't know how to market. I didn't say that in the query (because that's just a weird thing to put in a query), but I wonder what made him think it was something you'd enjoy.

Once I get my current WIP finished, I'm definitely going to query again, but this time with a better idea of how this all works thanks to this blog and others I've found.

It shall be a very fierce query. :-P

Merry Monteleone said...

If you define failure as not achieving your goal, even good progress is defined as failure, and that's just a recipe for total frigging insanity.

I love this. Get fierce is good, too, but it reminds me too much of America's Next Top Model, so I think I'll stick this one up on my fridge instead. Thanks for the kick in the pants, Janet.

Just Another Sarah said...

Definitely helpful, and a good way to look at it! Get fierce, indeed. Thanks!

Mary said...

Mine was one that was not picked. And as much as I wanted to throw a tantrum, I really think it will help in the long run. It made me think about how to restructure, get rid of stuff I was married to, and in the bitter end it is going to be awesome. (Couldn't have done it without Janet's constructive criticism).

Heidi Willis said...

last Christmas break you sent me a very personalized rejection in which you not only explained what didn't quite work for you but also what you thought I could do to make it stronger. And you said some nice things, too.

I kept at it, and got a publishing contract this summer.

Thanks for all you do. I always knew this probably wasn't the right book for you, but it seemed a right of passage to submit, and I was so glad I did.

Happy New Year!

_*rachel*_ said...

Stats aren't something I can change. My writing is. I move we focus on what we can do and not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself*.

*with all due credit to Matthew 6:34.

Ronda Laveen said...

Good. Now I know what my challenges are. Thanks.

I'm not much on scotch but an aged bourbon helps me when I'm licking my wounds.

The Daring Novelist said...

I have to admit, I was actually encouraged by your stats. (Although I figure if you ask for a full, the query probably increased the odds somewhat.)

But "Get Fierce" - now that's a bit of advice. (I think it will be good for my characters as well as me.)

Heidi Yantzi said...

Progress? All I know is, the Query Shark read my query and asked for more. That's as far as it went, but it did not feel like a failure.

It felt like a triumph, really.

And I still feel thankful!

(I want you to know that my resolution for 2010 is Be Ready!)

KEN said...

... interesting and sensible way of coming up with something fresh and new: by reading a lot in one's chosen genre. As it's worked for some it's got to be effective, though not necessarily for everyone.

As with all things related to the craft, writers must feel out what way works best for them -- while lending an ear to solid and insightful guidance like that offered here.

McKoala said...


Anonymous said...

Your perspective on "the other side" is always rewarding.

I love the stats!

Anonymous said...

Getting a yes is of course great (not that I know) but feedback is great too.

I think the best rejection I ever got was when the agent took the time to write a personal note (on nice stationary no less!). While she didn't choose to represent my project her suggestions showed me exactly what was missing from my work. If I hadn't gotten that rejection and feedback I would never have known that I needed a clearer hook.

Now I have that hook and I can feel confident when it comes time to submit my work.

Anonymous said...

Great post! In December, I received one of the opportunities you mentioned--an invite to resubmit/submit another manuscript. When I shared the news with my husband, his words were, "oh, I'm so sorry." I told him not to be, that I wasn't! I thought it a fantastic turn of events. To have an agent see potential in my work--and in my writing--enough to point out some things and offer to do a second read is incredibly encouraging.

I'm working with a freelance developmental editor to revise my manuscript before I resubmit--an investment I'm more than willing to make. The agent's comments did not discourage me at all--in fact, it did so much to ease some of the self-doubts....I couldn't thank her enough.

Catherine M.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this enlightening post. As writers we spend a lot of time talking to each other (or to ourselves) but don't often get a good insider perspective.

I have my ms out to several agents and will use your positive approach to interpret the responses I get.

Since I started writing seriously, I've been reading a lot in my genre (middle-grade and up) which I enjoy so I must have chosen the right one. My idea of a great time is having two hours to browse through a Borders Bookstore.

MaureenHume said...

Janet, did you say...kinda casually, just slipped it into your post...that you've talked to Lee Child??? And you spoke about the creation of Jack Reacher???
Oh, man!! I'm sooo jealous!! What I wouldn't give to pick his brain.

Janet Reid said...

Maureen, it's not hard to talk to Lee Child! I attend his readings! That's where I heard all this stuff. Honest!

Same for Joe Finder. He mentioned all this in a speech at a writers conference.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Excellent post, especially since you went into detail about the other 122 manuscripts. I will be taking this advice (even more) to heart!

Jaycee Adams said...

Heh, sorry if I sounded negative. I guess it was just a negative day for me. But since you niggled over a fraction of a percent, I'll say that "not this, but the next one" is still "failure". It's like second place. You're the first among losers. :LOL:

And if I get someone else as an agent, I'm not going to come back to you, am I? Can I have two agents?

(That's a serious question on a different topic. I'm a multi-interest kind of guy, and I can't imagine I'd find an agent who can handle science fiction, historical fiction, romance, children's books, thrillers, and self-help/motivational books all at once. Yeah, I know: until I get them written, it's counting chickens before they hatch.)

And if my current book isn't good enough, am I going to have the guts to spend another year writing the next one? Am I going to take "not this, but the next one" as the encouragement it's meant as?