Never Tell Me the Odds

— February 14, 2011 (11 comments)
Three years ago, I thought all you needed to get published was a half-decent book.

Most of you are laughing now.

The thing is if I knew, when I started writing Travelers, that it would take eight years and three novels to get to the place where agents said, "I like your writing, but...", I think I would've given up from the start. I'm glad I didn't know how hard this road would be when I started it.

But there are a few things I wish I had known, and I'll share these with you:
  1. Critiquing other stories can help you get better faster than writing them. You can critique dozens of short stories in the time it takes to craft one, and as I've said it's easier to see problems in other stories.
  2. In terms of learning technique, short stories are equivalent to novels, but with a quicker turn-around time. You can write dozens of short stories, and have them critiqued and revised, in the time it takes you to write a novel.
  3. A story must have tension at all times. Tension is what keeps the reader reading. They're either afraid something will happen or they want to learn the mystery behind it all.
  4. Nathan Bransford's blog is a gold mine. There are many, many good resources out on this internet, but if I could only point to one, I'd say read EVERY POST in Publishing Essentials on the sidebar.
  5. Backup your stuff. Remember that time you had to retype a month's-worth of work? Yeah. Backup your stuff.
Of course, I wouldn't have believed #'s 2 and 5. For that matter, I wouldn't have believed it would take this long to get where I am, even if someone told me. I had a lot of hope and an overdeveloped sense of I Might Be The Exception. So I guess it's okay if you tell me the odds. I just won't listen.

What do you wish you had known starting out?

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  1. Absolutely number 5.

    I can't count the amount of times my PC's crashed mid-edit and left me fist clenched to the heavens, vader-style, "Noooooo!"

    Losing a month's work is enough to turn anyone to the Dark side.

    (luckily I've now followed Yoda's advice and got me a 2tb external hard drive)

    That, and writing ain't as easy as it first looks (luck plays a part, too)

  2. Han Solo and I go way back. :)

    I'm glad I didn't know the odds; I was terrified enough just by the simple act of writing. But I wouldn't have listened either, not because I think I might be the exception, but because I know how my brain works. I need a certain willful ignorance to be able to confidently prepare for any daunting task. If I'm overly aware of the odds of failure, it makes me less likely to succeed. (Not everyone is like this; my husband is the opposite. He needs to know, in excruciating precision, all the ways he may fail, in order to properly motivate himself to prepare to succeed. Odd, that.)

    I wish I had known how much joy writing would be. I would have started sooner. :)

  3. Odds, what odds? Life is a giant gumball machine. You are 100% likely to drop, when it's your turn. Ironically, I'm not a Calvinist.

    Not knowing that much about getting published, I've read enough to know talent, quality, and originality are only sometimes present in published works. They can't be all that important... right?

    If your reason to write is fame/ money, get a different job/hobby. There are easier ways to get both. If you don't enjoy telling the story for its own sake, no one will want to read it. One of my favorite books was written by a guy who had no intention of publishing it (The Power Of One). A breeze, and an overly inquisitive daughter-in-law, turned it from a doorstop into an internationally loved novel.

    Oh, and sanity is for the faint of heart.

  4. Like Susan, I wish I had known how enjoyable taking my writing seriously would be.

    I did know the odds when I started to focus on becoming a published writer, and I knew it was going to be a long, difficult process. Knowing this gives me a sense of calm. Now three years and four books into this journey, I don't feel frustrated--I feel like I am where I'm supposed to be.

    I wish I had known how much meticulous planning it takes to write a well paced novel. That it isn't just letting words fall on a page.

  5. yeah, there's something about knowing the odds are nearly impossible that makes me want to buckle down, work hard, and stick it to the man... i think i may have anger issues... :)
    great points adam!

  6. Oh man, I am so exactly right there with you. I had the same misconceptions when I started out, and consider myself very fortunate to have learned many of the same lessons in only a few years.

    I love the way you put it about tension too. I know they say try to have some tension and conflict on every page, but the way you said it sounds even better.

  7. Oy! You just reminded me that I haven't backed up the first draft I'm writing. Not once. And I share my writing computer with a twelve-year-old.


  8. @Ian: You, sir, win the award for best use(s) of Star Wars in a comment.

    @Susan: For me, it was that at the time I was choosing where to focus my creative energies, and I chose what I thought of at the time as the most possible. Though in hindsight, computer games and board games are probably equally difficult enterprises.

    @Emmet: I once thought as you do re: talent, quality, and originality in published works. I'm learning the formula is much, much more complicated than that though.

  9. @Heidi: Totally with you on meticulous planning. I'm still learning what makes a good (novel-length) story. Turns out there's more than just tension.

    @aspiring: Ha! Well good luck with your own issues. To each our own!

    @Matthew: Thanks, man!

    @Myrna: Yikes. I know from experience what teenagers and younger can do to a computer. That's why I never share mine :-)

  10. I don't think any of us are really laughing at your first statement, because we all started out there, too!

    Great points.


  11. Thanks, Amy. When I read similar comments on other blogs, I do laugh, but it's in solidarity. As in, "Ha! Yeah, I did that too."