In the spring of 2006 I went to my first writing conference to pitch my first novel, ROOMS. Four editors asked for my manuscript and by July I’d talked to three well-known agents who were interested in representing me.
I was elated. Three agents? Even though water still gushed from behind my ears I knew enough to realize having three agents interested was unusual. I figured I’d made it and one of them would offer to sign me soon.
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In August of that year I went to a mentoring clinic led by Cec Murphey, bestselling author of more than 120 books. Before the three-day clinic the eight of us were to send Cec five pages of our manuscript. Cec would critique the pages, then send them back ahead of time so we could hit the ground sprinting when the clinic arrived.
I sent in the first five pages of ROOMS and waited for Cec’s response. I imagined he’d write back and say, “Wow, this is excellent. Send me five more pages!” I mean, c’mon, I had THREE agents interested and FOUR editors.
Not what he wrote. “You have talent, Jim, but you have a long ways to go.”
Insert knife, twist twice, pull out and clean blade. Repeat.
Yeah, it hurt. But I needed the truth. I went to the clinic and was fortunate. Cec turned out to be even more brutal than I expected on my writing, but more compassionate and caring as a person than I could have imagined. He was the perfect combination to propel my writing to the level it needed to be at to warrant serious consideration from a publisher.
I reworked the entire manuscript and sent it to a fourth agent I’d developed a relationship over the summer with, and wanted to work with. He signed me ten days later.
I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was ready. Yes, I was close, but 90 percent of the way there isn’t enough. Steve Laube says when he looks at a manuscript the writing and story can’t be 90, or 92, or 94 percent of the way there. It has to be 95 percent or above.
(This is one reason I am not (in general) a fan of self-publishing. I believe most novelists think they’re at the 95 percent mark when they’re closer to 85 percent. I certainly was.)
See, your competition isn’t other unpublished writers. It’s me. It’s my fellow Novel Rocketers. It’s the other authors on the bookshelves.
Even though you’ve heard it again and again and again, ad nauseam, it is worth saying one more time:
The best thing you can do get published (and sell books whether traditionally published or not) is to work on your craft. Find (a qualified) editor that will be brutal on your writing and listen to them.
Because here’s the good news: Most aspiring writers stop at 90 percent. It gets hard. It’s daunting. The knife doesn’t feel good when it slides between your emotional ribs.
But if you’re one of the few who are determined to refine that last 6 percent, your odds of getting published go up exponentially.