A Kipling moment

October 5, 2010

It’s been a lean couple of weeks, blog-wise. Too much going on to write, given I’ve had the SCBWI Montana conference over in Bozeman, followed by just two days in the office before leaving crack of dawn last Thursday for a hectic time seeing publishers in New York. All aspects of this business covered in just a few days, from aspiring authors learning their craft to the editors who – along with their respective teams – make the decisions on what to buy.
How I visualize this process is as a long funnel, which starts very wide (all the many writers who want to create a story and submit) and ends very narrow (the number who actually pop out as authors with deals). The funnel gets practically microscopic when we look for those who’ve made it not only into deals but into bestsellerdom!

The journey from one end of the funnel to the other can be long and torturous or fast and (apparently) easy. But don’t be seduced by the stories you read about books being written in dreams/in a few afternoons over a bottle of wine/in a month or two. Lots of those stories are played up to sound exciting, and the ones that are completely true are very, very rare. The path to publication – or to a second/third/fourth deal – is more usually scattered with stones and potholes and there are going to be a few really bloody knees on the way.

A literary agency is at any one time a ferment of things happening, from the superb to the interesting to the frustrating. We had our fair share of superb this past week – notably with Brenna Yovanoff’s THE REPLACEMENT debuting on the NYT Bestseller list, but also with a couple of great deals in the run-up to Frankfurt.

But not all pots bubble beautifully just when you want to them to, and all this is so much on my mind at the moment that I want to give you some thoughts that popped into my head as I flew through the darkness to Denver/waited in the doctor’s surgery/bought my veg at Giant. And I’m illustrating them with shots from last week’s brilliant Yellowstone trip (kindly organized by Regional Advisor for Montana, Michele Corriel) since erupting geysers, bubbling pools and general wasteland can feel quite appropriate when contemplating the writing life!


Anyway, here are my thoughts on skills/abilities you might seek to cultivate in order to make your authorial passage down the funnel more peaceful. Some of them are truisms, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

1 Try to take the challenges (ie, the stuff you find really, really hard) and turn them into opportunities. That means an opportunity to learn, to think outside the envelope, to look again with fresh eyes, to discover depths of strength within yourself. What did you learn this time? What might you do differently next time? How can you improve?

2 Take a long view of a long game. Generally, Rome was not built in a day, and careers are rarely built in a moment. Think long term – how are you going to get there, even if the short term doesn’t look quite as rosy as you’d like. Be open to bending in the wind – encouraging a flexibility within yourself.

3 Cultivate patience. Most things in writing and publishing take a long time. Often a VERY long time. You can wait weeks to hear back on submissions. You can be rejected by 14 and hit with number 15. You can miss with your first manuscript and hit with your second. You can wait months for your contract to be negotiated and signed. Months for your edits. A lot of this makes watching paint dry look exciting. Are you up for that – or how will you deal with it?

4 Meditate, ponder, breathe your way to a place that feels more peaceful. Whatever it takes, strive to stay calm and balanced. That’s how you will help yourself produce your best work and most philosophical frame of mind. [Believe me, I find this hard too.]

5 Remember that you can always keep improving at your craft and that things change. So even if your first and second revisions feel like rubbish, your third could be The One! I could mention some very big-selling titles that went the rounds for months before they ended up in the right shape for the market (you might be amazed).

6 Bear in mind that books are bought by teams of people, not individuals. Which makes one person’s (or five people’s) enthusiasm not always enough. What matters is the offer, and a whole lot of people have to be on board to agree that.

7 Remind yourself that the destination will always change. At first the destination may seem to be getting an agent. But then it becomes getting a deal. Ah, then it turns into selling the book off the shelf (physical or electronic). But what about the next deal . . . .? The destination is a moving target; it changes as your expectations of yourself grow.

8 It’s not really a question of ‘living the dream’ as a published writer, so ban that phrase. The Dream is very hard work, with ups and downs and huge amounts of hard work. In fact, the dream turns out to be as complex as most jobs, full of challenge and satisfaction, in varying measure.

9 Prepare for how you will take disappointment and knock-backs – or a long period without resolution. It may or may not happen, but most of us just want to KNOW and then move on. In the books business, especially on submission, resolution can be quite a while coming. How can you best reinforce your psyche?

10 Don’t brood over other writers’ blog posts or tweets. Oh yes, it’s so easy to read what others choose to say about themselves and think, ‘Hey, why does it all go so brilliantly for them and not me?’ When we social network, we ‘brand’ ourselves. We say things that show ourselves in our best light. Behind those words are other layers of truth that those people will not be sharing. So, presume it’s like an iceberg – you are seeing the top bit only – the majority is down below the waterline, well hidden.

11 If you are a published author DO NOT keep checking your Amazon ranking or Google yourself. You will descend into a spiral of madness and we will have to stretcher you away and feed you through a straw. I’m serious – because unless you are in the top 10 of the nation’s sellers you are going to feel distressed and envious. [The agent equivalent of this is NEVER do a search for yourself on Verla Kay’s Blueboards.]

12 Laugh with disdain at THE X FACTOR or AMERICA’S GOT TALENT because the books world is not that world. I have this view that we’re all slightly infected with that kind of outlook – that MY AMAZING DREAMS COULD COME TRUE VERY EASILY AND QUICKLY! In our business it’s more a question of quiet, steady work over a long period of time.

13 Remember that this business is mercurial and capricious – subject to change and unpredictability. It is not personal – it is business. Your manuscript is not YOU – it is your work. Decisions by publishers have a lot to do with a commercial marketplace; they are not just about your ability to create a nice story or turn a good sentence.

14 Study the rhinoceros and pin photographs of these beasts above your laptop. The rhino has a lovely thick hide. Little birds and insects jump around on that skin and the rhino is oblivious! Graft some rhino hide on to yourself so you are not exposed to every nuance and passing breeze that could hurt you. Practice a rhino roar!

15 Get lots of exercise. Find your outlet. A wall you kick. A martial art you study. Or like me, stride around your neighbourhood in a leather cowboy hat ranting to yourself. Gradually your neighbours will catch on and start to say, ‘Oh, don’t mind about HER – she’s a writer. She can’t help it, she’s a bit crazy, poor love.’

16 Meditate on our friend Mr Kipling, who said it big time:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Impostors just the same;
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

Everyone knows that one, but even more importantly I shall leave you with this Kipling quote, which I actually much prefer: