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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hold the Scalpel!

You think you're ready to submit your work to editors and agents?

Maybe you are.

I thought I was ready in the spring of '06. (I wasn't.)

I'd finished the manuscript for my first novel, ROOMS and through connections I made at the Mt Hermon Writers Conference I got the story in front of three agents. All three were interested in representing me. But none signed me.

Why? My story needed more work. My novel was 90% of the way there. But as agent Steve Laube says, a novel from a first time author needs to be 95% - 98% of the way there.

When I mentor aspiring novelists at writing conferences I often see good writing. But not great writing. To be signed by an agent and get a publishing contract, your writing has to be great. And most authors are too close to the trees to evaluate whether their manuscript is ready to be part of the forest.

I'm fond of this classic writing anecdote which illustrates my view:

An author and a brain surgeon went golfing one spring day and the brain surgeon said, "I'm taking a six weeks off this summer to write a book!"

The author stared at his friend and said, "That's a stunning coincidence. I'm taking six weeks off this summer to become a brain surgeon."

What I find with most pre-published writers is a person who has read a few medical journals and think they're ready to perform surgery. It doesn't work that way. To be published takes years of intense study of craft and mucho hours.

As Malcom Gladwell says in his book OUTLIERS, most people don't master an area of pursuit without putting in at least 10,000 hours. In other words, years and years.

Each September the American Christian Fiction Writers put on a Gala honoring published and pre-published writers. The contest for pre-published writers is called Genesis. Winning a Genesis award is a strong indication of a writer who is close to being publishable. Close, but not necessarily fully ready.

I've talked to a number of Genesis winners who expect contracts to fly their way after winning. They've been chosen out of all the other entries! They don’t understand why editors and agents don't do a Snoopy dance after viewing their material.

The reality is the winner's competition isn't the other Genesis competitors. Their competition is already published authors. Their competition is the Carol award (ACFW's Book of the Year) finalists.

Back when Simon Cowell was on America Idol reigning as the king of snarkdom he would sometimes lambast a contestant who was clearly the star of the night. Randy and Paula would be shocked. His defense was he wasn't comparing the contestant to the other singers on stage; he was comparing them to the hit makers in the marketplace. I think he was right.

Is this discouraging to you? It shouldn't be.

The truth is most writers aren't willing to put in their 10,000 hours. They want to be published now, so they self-publish or throw up an e-book on Amazon and essentially take a short cut to publication.

Sorry, there are no short cuts.

That's the good news. The intense competition weeds out most pre-published writers.

Which means if you're willing to do the brutal work to bring your work into the 95% ready zone, your odds of getting published increase dramatically.

You wouldn't expect to do surgery on a patient by reading a few medical journals and studying medicine for three or four years. Same thing with publishing. Writing is a highly specialized skill that takes years. Yes, I know I've said that already, but it bears repeating.

Don't be discouraged. Every published author I know has gone through an intense residency program.

Keep going. Make a detailed and rigorous study plan so when you are ready you'll pass your medical boards with high marks.

To your scalpel and mine.James L. Rubart is the bestselling author of ROOMS and BOOK of DAYS. His latest novel, THE CHAIR just released.


  1. You hit the nail on the head, Jim. My entry in the "Noble Theme" contest before it became Genesis is still waiting in the files for publication. The road is long and hard, but the reward at the end is worth every step. Looking forward to reading THE CHAIR.

  2. Well said, Jim, and on the mark. But the industry, like the craft, is highly subjective. I've read the work of some whose craft is ready, yet who do not win the hearts of editors or agents because their work is not perceived as commercially viable. (That's a legitimate objection from an entity who must make money to survive.) For these writers, the only path may be self-publishing. And some who have gone that route eventually prove to the agents and editors that they misjudged the work.

  3. I have to agree with Jim Hamlett. Not because I elected to do the self-publishing route but because I've read too much mediocre material published in CBA (and ABA for that matter) that is published to fill a "need" or published because of a perceived "need".

    That's not to say there aren't some dynamite highly skilled authors in CBA, but it is to say there's some very ordinary material coming forth as well.

    Getting published is not the end-all, cure-all for quality writing. After reading hundreds of novels from CBA offerings, I can say this. No offense intended to any of you who've jumped through all the hoops and persevered to publication.

    As a side note, the quality of proofed and copy-edited books in CBA is no better than those who go through that process in self-publishing. Lots of mistakes show up in CBA and ABA books.

  4. Right on the money, Jim. I spent 2 years getting my 2nd manuscript ready. It was worth the time, since it won several awards. This writing gig ain't for wimps. It's long a long and hard road. I've been writing full time since 2003, constantly improving, continually studying, always reading. Hey, I ain't a wimp! I'm in this for the long haul.

  5. Thanks for the realistic look at what it takes to get published. Before my debut novel was contracted I wrote five so-so inspirational historical romances and most of a lousy contemporary and spent countless hours studying craft. I rewrote one of the historicals once and another twice. The latter garnered me several contest wins and my awesome agent. But I wasn't done yet.

    Rachelle pointed out a serious plot problem in my story. The fix was ditching 3/4 of the story and starting over. My CPs pointed out the sagging middle I'd unknowingly slipped in, and I rewrote that. Only then, five years and some 10,000 hours and 1,000,000 words after embarking on my writing journey, did I receive my contract offer.

    It takes time to get published, but the journey can be a lot of fun if we keep a positive attitude and realistic expectations.

  6. But I so WANT to start hacking on that brain. I'm sure I will make unprecented advances in medicine and besides, God told me to do it, so I *must* be ready.

    Seriously, thanks for the feet on the ground reminder & encouragement from this Genesis Finalist. I think finalling is a plenty sweet honor. Funny thing is that though judges gave me scores that put me in the finals, I got some conflicting feedback in the comments. Reminds me contests are great for feedback and learning, but contests alone aren't always an accurate measure where you're really at, good outcome or bad. But it's always a good exercise in hearing the variety of opinions you'll face out there among readers, and that's important to keep in mind.

    I do have a fantastic, realistic agent in my corner who doesn't pull her punches about my work. I have no delusions of being trailed around the lobby at conference by a dozen screaming publishers (just one or two is all, probably.:D) or caught up in a bidding war when I return home. Excpectations can be a funny thing, even for us realists. Hope can sneak up on you when you aren't looking, no matter how hard you work to keep it down where it belongs. My prayer is that the Genesis finalists who most need to, will win. It may be just the boost someone needs to keep writing, keep studying. Or just the right amount of exposure to get their work noticed by that right publisher. I'm glad God knows who's ready to start cutting and who needs more lab time. And who needs to seriously consider selling office supplies.

    Thanks also for all your time & energy behind the scenes.

  7. Jim, Great advice, and some that bears repeating often.
    For those who have advanced from writer to author, let me take the analogy a bit further. When I retired from medical practice, after eight years of training and thirty-six years of experience, I was still learning--and I knew that was necessary. It took work to get to the point of being ready to pick up that scalpel, but continued work was required for me to be a good practitioner. The best in the field--doctors and authors-- never stop learning.

  8. Very true, Jim! You couldn't have told me this when I was starting out, (though I'm sure someone did) but it's very very true.

  9. Great advice, Jim! And I agree with Richard's comment, too about continuing to learn. I'm not sure that I've put in my 10,000 hours yet, but I've been writing stories (some really terrible ones, at that!) since I was 7, my first novel in junior high. My third novel and my first novella released this year, and I just keep thinking about how much I have to learn yet. Ane's right. Writing isn't for wimps.

    Thanks for the encouragement and the advice--even for us pubbed authors. :)

  10. Thank you. This is so encouraging - encouraging in that *actually* encouraging, tough-love sort of a way, which is the sort of encouragement that I find usually ends up being worth something!


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