Make sure the type of novel you’re querying is selling in the current market. What agents are signing is eighteen to twenty-four months behind what’s hitting today’s shelves. So they may know the market is saturated well before you do.
I personally don’t like the idea of writing for the market. It stifles originality and takes some of the joy out of the process for me. But some writers love writing for the market. If you can write a novel within a few months, you can give it a try and see how it works for you.
Either way, this information will make you a better judge of whether it’s your writing that needs improving, or whether you simply aren’t going to find a home for it because it’s the three-hundredth dystopian novel the agent has seen that month. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.)
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This service is something you can use and then cancel. So if you’re querying, it’s one of the best places to find agents, editors, and the book deals that are being announced today. These are deals that agents or authors have sold to editors/publishers within the last month or so. You can do a search for deals specifically in age categories, genres, and also using key words.
Not everyone posts their deals on PM, but enough of them do that you’ll be able to see trends.
If you search the hashtags during any pitch contest and begin scrolling, you can see the pitches agents are liking. Conversely, you’ll see the pitches they aren’t liking. Note the premises, the worlds/settings, the age categories, and the genres or types of novels. Sometimes, you’ll see a pitch that gets several likes. You’ll know that’s a premise worth thinking about or building on.
Some of you might say this would make you leery of putting your pitch out there. My answer to that: Give the same exact premise to fifty people, you’re going to get fifty completely different novels. What we write is influenced by our experience, perceptions, and imagination. No two will be the same. And often, several agents will pick up similar premises, because book sales ride on trends, which means the premises are similar and they still sell. They actually sell because they’re similar until you reach a saturation point. Publishers use the huge wave of a popular book like Twilight (2008) to springboard other books with similar premises or genre/age groups like The Vampire Diaries (2009).
Ask an Agent or Editor
Agents often get on the #askagent hashtag and offer to answer any of your questions for an hour or so. Ask them if your specific genre and age category and perhaps even premise is something that’s likely to sell in the current market. Don’t pitch them unless you’re asked, but if they’re interested in it, I’m sure they’ll say something.
When you’re at a conference, it would be appropriate to politely approach and agent or editor and ask them this question. Remember to be polite and respectful of their time, but most agents and editors offer round table discussions at lunch or don’t mind chatting after presenting.
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They have podcasts, trade show daily info, and a lot of information for staying in touch with what’s happening. If you don’t subscribe, they have a much smaller list of weekly deals. If you subscribe, you can find a lot more deals and lists that they provide. It’s a treasure trove of information on the industry.
If you belong to SCBWI (Society of Book Writers & Illustrators), as a member once a year you can usually get PW for $99 for the whole year. It’s a great deal. Other organizations (like Kobo Writing Life Authors) also have a similar offer.
If you have other ways you follow current deals in the publishing market, I’d love to hear about them.
Writing had taken such a hold in my life, it was nearly impossible for me not to write. But at the same time, I wondered how I’d survive in an industry that felt like it was simultaneously sucking the life out of me.
Welcome to publishing.
I think all artists go through this. Art of all forms is undervalued in our society. People pirate movies and songs and e-books and think nothing of it. Most people don’t pay for original, quality artwork to hang in their homes or offices. And a lot of readers sacrifice quality, edited literature for something cheaper.
Because, let’s face it, we’d all like to get more bang for the almighty buck.
Me included. The $500 painting pays for a plane ticket to see my kid. I’ll glance at that bare piece of wall for the rest of my life in exchange for a week with any one of my children. Maybe I’ll cover the blank space with a thrift-store cork board and some pictures from the trip. And $500 is cheap for an original painting.
After another round of querying and another round of form rejections, I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. The words were there, the worlds existed in my mind, and I went back to the stories in my head while folding clothing and doing the dishes. Life went on.
Until one day, my husband confronted me. “What’s up with you lately?” A conversation about my mental, emotional, even physical health ensued. I wasn’t nearly as happy. And my husband told me I needed to go on a writing retreat because it always helped. (Yes, he’s that good.)
My heart fluttered but my brain remained fixed. “No way. I’ve given that up.”
He shook his head. “Why? You love writing. I thought it was your dream to be published.”
“Was being the key word.” I folded my arms and clenched my jaw.
He sighed and gave me a hug, kissed my cheek, squeezed me a bit harder even when my arms remained folded. And I cried.
I couldn’t face it.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
I didn’t think so. At least, not if I had to face querying again. But…
What if I was never published? I could write for me. Writing stories made me happy. And that’s what mattered. The next time I had a free moment, I sat down at the computer and started a new novel. And for the first time in years, I felt free.
So how do we know when enough is enough?
If you can quit writing and it doesn’t ruin you, do it. I say that with all the tenderness and care I possess.
You might be unhappy with that notion or disagree with me, and that’s fine. Feel free. But after watching hundreds of published authors go through the process, I’ve learned what it’s like. If you don’t love writing and write for yourself, for the love of the words and the worlds and the characters—the struggle, frustration, and rejection will eventually leach out every other positive part of the writing process.
You’ve got to have a passion that will sustain you through all the struggle to get published. You have to have it after you get published and don’t sell enough copies or get a hateful review or don’t sell the next book or don’t sell the next three. Even if you sell well and things go wonderfully, you have to love writing enough to find time to write while you’re marketing, promoting, editing the last book, and dealing with everything else in life.
So, if you have to write, how do you know when your manuscript is ready to query?
This is a complex question. Sometimes the answer is, you don’t.
Most people don’t have enough money to hire a professional editor. That’s okay. I never did. So how do you figure it out on your own?
Remember that you’re not alone. You have critique partners, hopefully, that will give you their opinion. They might be wrong, but it’s a place to start.
Use contests like Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match to submit as if you were querying and see what happens. They’re free, so no harm. Usually, you’ll get an idea of how well your manuscript is doing against the competition. These are a bit more helpful in that you can choose the mentors who read and write in your genre and age category just the way you would submit to agents. Again, don’t let that completely discourage you. Use them a gauge, not an end all be all. They can only accept one manuscript, where an agent can accept multiple. So you might’ve made the cut. And often, the mentor will tell you that or give helpful feedback.
There’s also the free workshop, #1st5Pages. They take the first five people every month who submit and give a free critique of your pitch (the flapjacket or blurb part of your query) and your first five pages and let you revise a couple times in the process.
Use critiques at conferences or online to see what industry agents and editors think of the manuscript. They do cost $40-$50, so it’s sometimes prohibitive, but paying a little can get you a lot of information. This is a career you might have to invest in, just like most people would pay for classes or training. Often, these conferences will offer ten page critiques. I’ve been both sides of the table here, getting critiques and then giving them. My advice: let yourself go through the grief process with them. You can get a little angry, feel hurt, let down, but give it a couple days and then go back and read the critique. Often, the agent or editor will have some great advice for how you can make your novel better.
Use the querying process itself to see if you’re ready. Choose ten agents. Five who are young and hungry for manuscripts and five seasoned agents. If all ten are form rejections, there’s probably something wrong with your query, synopsis, or first ten pages. I’ve got a post on The Modern Query Letter here. And The Simple Synopsis here. Get help. Edit them. Have people read them. If they don’t understand anything in one single pass, make sure they tell you where they were confused. Get it as good as you can. (Don’t feel badly. I know plenty of published authors who need help because queries and synopses are so difficult.) Then query ten more as before.
Still form rejections? Consider getting professional help–but make sure you do your homework! Not every freelance editor is the same. And often, your best bet is to go with an agent or editor from places like #MSWL Consultations. Agents and editors offer critiques, and they might like the premise enough to ask you to submit. If you need a cheaper option, go with a freelance editor who’s been in the query inboxes with agents as an intern and been groomed to read queries.
Revise it. Soon, you’ll start getting requests. If you’ve done your best to revise and perfect your query and pages and you’re not getting any requests for more, you need to think about querying another novel. There is no magic number of queries to come to this conclusion.
It might just be when you can’t take anymore. It might be that you have made a list of every single agent who accepts your age category and genre and you’re going to get to the end of that list no matter what. Either one is acceptable. Do what you need to in order to be satisfied, and then let it go. (That’s the hardest part.)
Hopefully, during this whole process, you’ve continued to write.
Often, it’s not until the third, forth, or even fifth novel that a writer catches agent interest.
Another thing, make sure the type of novel you’re querying is selling in the current market. As stated before somewhere (I think), what agents are signing is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting shelves. So they may know the market is saturated well before you do. My next post will be about how to follow the current industry sales and what’s being picked up now, so you as an author will be privy to what’s being scooped up.
I personally don’t like the idea of writing for the market. It stifles originality and takes some of the joy out of the process for me. Either way, this information will make you a better judge of whether it’s your writing that needs improving, or whether you simply aren’t going to find a home for it because it’s a vampire novel and that trend is over. That said, it’s also you can dust off that vampire novel sitting in that file when an agent tweets out that they want to see those vampire novels again.
The reason I never wanted to query again was because so much of what I heard felt like I wasn’t good enough.
I. Me. Not my manuscript.
Every rejection basically said, we don’t want this manuscript. What they really meant was, I can’t sell this manuscript. For whatever reason.
I had to know why. I could accept the truth if I understood it.
A few people, mostly readers, gave me helpful hints.
There were things I needed to fix: the grammar, the punctuation, finding my style, finding the characters’ voices, learning to plot and world build.
There were issues with some of the books I couldn’t fix: this idea isn’t high-concept enough, the market doesn’t want that right now but wait fifteen years and it’ll come back around, that book is too quiet, that just isn’t the right fit for me (or my list).
Notice the word books: I hadn’t stopped writing for myself. At this point, it had been about five or six years since I’d started writing. I’d written about five books and completely rewritten two of them after deleting every single file of the original, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back and look.
And this whole time, I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
Me. Not my manuscript.
It’s easy to get resentful, to say the gatekeepers are to blame, to become dissatisfied or even angry with the publishing industry. I’ve been there more than once, especially after a round of rejections. But I’ve also been on the other side of this business, shuffling through the queries and reading hundreds of manuscripts on behalf of agents and editors.
Agents and editors have to love the book so much that they’re willing to read it about fifteen times and still be excited about it. There are books I’ve written myself that I can’t say that about. So how would I expect an agent to love it that much? I’ve seen so many excellent manuscripts that I wouldn’t want to read again. They were well written, had voice, great worlds, and satisfying endings. Even if I’d read them a second time, there wouldn’t be a third. It’s still a great book, written by a talented author.
So very often, that’s exactly what they mean.
There are a lot of other reasons agents don’t think they’re the right fit for your manuscript.
The form rejection might make it feel otherwise. (Even the ones that feel personal are usually cut and pasted–because agents are already worn so thin on time, they have to.) Sometimes, they don’t know any editors who they could sub it to. Agents try to keep tabs on what editors are looking for. They might already have a client who’s either written or is currently writing a manuscript very close to yours that would be a conflict of interest. They might have a list already full of that age category or genre that they’re trying to sell and have too many submissions already out to editors in that area. That genre or sub-genre might be already saturated in the current market. (Remember, the publishing industry is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting the shelves, so you might not think it’s hit yet.) There are heaps of reasons agents might reject your manuscript.
In fact, I wish everyone would say that their manuscript was rejected, not that they were rejected. Their manuscript wasn’t a right fit, not that they weren’t a right fit.
Believe me, I know how difficult this advice is to take, BUT–It’s not something you should take personally.
And even if it is personal, take a lesson from kindergarten. Not everyone is going to be your best friend. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to. Be honest with yourself–do you love everyone you come in contact with? Do you love every book you read enough to read it over and over and over and then provide support and enthusiasm and crisis intervention to the author for the few years it’ll take to get it published? Is there even a handful of books you could say that about?
Even wildly popular books get terrible reviews. The rejection never ends. Ever. Some people don’t want to read them. Some people just don’t get what all the fuss is about. With so many people on the planet having their own unique experiences, with so many polarized perspectives, there will always be people who don’t like your writing.
You don’t need everyone to love your book. You just need about 0.000002 percent of Earth’s population to like your book. And you can do that.
I’m giving away a query and first 250-word critique to a random person who makes a comment on this post between the time it goes up until 8am Central Time on September 24th, 2018 (that’s Monday). All you have to do to qualify is tell me one small thing you did to help someone else within the last week. It could be a smile, taking someone coffee, laughing at someone’s terrible joke. I don’t care. I just need to see some good people doing good things.
Thank you to every single person who shared their experiences and good deeds. I know it’s not usually in our nature to toot our own horn, but I also think it’s uplifting to see all the good that’s being done in the world.
After having a couple people read it, all of whom said it was !Wonderful!, I thought, It must be good enough to be published then.
My chest tightened, and my stomach fluttered.
So I researched how to query on the internet. One issue–reliable sources. Another issue–outdated sources. I wasn’t sure who to trust or where to go for help. The biggest issue–I didn’t know anyone else who wrote novels. So I gave it a try.
I queried fifteen agents.
Some rejections came, and I thought they were written just to me. Oh, they thought I would find an agent! It just wasn’t right for their particular taste.
I queried fifteen more. About ten more rejections. And they all began sounding the same.
I mean, if it was decent, one out of thirty might’ve liked it, right? After another fifteen queries and some rejections, I’d had nineteen months of heartbreak.
I’d written another novel and half of the sequel to the one I was querying in the meantime. Because by then, I was addicted to it.
Every agents had said they liked Young Adult, Science fiction.
A side note:
Whenever you’re researching on the internet, look at people’s credentials, but also look at when the article or advice was written. For example, a lot of agents used to want the title, word count, genre, and age category paragraph of the query at the bottom, right before your bio. Now, most of the agents (at least the newer ones) want it at the top. Another addition within the last several years is an introductory, personalized sentence about why you’re querying them. And within the last couple years, comparable titles have become a thing to add as well.
That said, most agents aren’t going to throw out your query if you don’t do it exactly that way. They’ll give you the time (and I know this because I read queries for an agent) and read the entire query. But knowing how they prefer it shows a level of dedication and professionalism that speaks to what kind of client you’ll be.
So what was wrong with my manuscript?
I had a great idea, but my writing wasn’t publishing quality yet. I made a lot of errors that new writers make.
And that was okay.
Something I was doing that wasn’t okay was translating the rejection of the manuscript to a rejection of me. It wasn’t enough to keep me from trying though.
All my effort went to honing my craft. And I made a plan.
First, learn to write well. If querying took that long, I didn’t want to waste another eighteen months querying and burn another forty-five agents. So, I wanted to wait until I knew for sure that my writing was good enough.
Second, learn to edit. Because your writing is only as good as your editing. I wasn’t going to throw away those stories. One was a planned trilogy with a prequel, number two already half written. The other could be a series, and I already knew how book two would begin and end.
So how could I learn when I didn’t know anyone and lived in rural New York?
I went to book clubs and libraries and independent book stores and asked the authors I met how they did it. And every single answer was different. (This is something I later realized would be the one thing that remained consistent throughout publishing–everything is different and subjective.)
I read books and analyzed them. Outlining plots. Following character arcs for primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters. Mapping structures of worlds. I tore the books I loved apart and saw them in a completely different light–as an author and editor rather than a reader.
One of the crucial people I met then was author Therese Walsh. She’d published her first book and was writing her second, but more than that, she was building a community of writers through a website called Writer Unboxed. It wasn’t very big back then, but it’s since become one of the best places to go for quality information on writing. She was building a community. She was giving back to the writing industry and gaining an invaluable network. I wanted to be like her, I just needed the opportunity.
Later, after moving to Kansas, I began taking classes from authors and editors in the business who could teach me the art of writing. I went to conferences and found a critique group.
For years, I soaked up as much information as I could.
This is the kind of post I’ll be updating as time goes by, but over the years, I’ve learned more from books on how to write craft than from any agent or editor or workshop I’ve ever taken. Most of these I’ve read more than once and have highlighted, marked, stuck post-its in reference spots, generally used and loved them to the point of abuse. I’m like my poor daughter who loved her baby chick so much she hugged it to death–literally.
The first book on writing craft I ever read was a set of editorial letters from the celebrated editor Ursula Nordstrom to her clients, namely Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Garth Williams, John Steptoe… You get the idea. It was the moment I knew I wanted to be published, because I wanted an editor like that. I knew I needed someone in my corner who would be my creative partner in all of this mess that is writing.
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom,
Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus
She trusted her immense intuition and generous heart–and published the most. Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.
Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.
Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.
Once I realized my current writing abilities were less than industry standard (to put it gently), I wanted to improve so badly. I asked someone I knew who was a major in some kind of English or Journalism what books they studied in college about wriitng. And they told me about…
The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
You know the authors’ names. You recognize the title. You’ve probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual, now in a fourth edition. A new Foreword by Roger Angell reminds readers that the advice of Strunk & White is as valuable today as when it was first offered.This book’s unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of “the little book” to make a big impact with writing.
This little book became my writer’s bible. I’ve read it so many times over the years, I had to buy a second copy. In hardback. It’s just a standard, and I love it.
Since that time, I’ve always tried to open my mind to more and more opinions, but I have to say, I don’t agree with all writing craft books. I’ve enjoyed them, taken what I can and left the rest. I used to feel guilty for wanting to argue a point, but I’ve realized that what makes great writers is their fresh and unique way of doing things. So I don’t think we all have to agree on everything. It would be a boring world of literature if we did. And what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another.
So these are the books I’ve used, read, and loved. Some more than others. But I’m not going to bias you one way or another. Because they’ve all had something to offer and made me a better writer, especially a better editor, in the process.
In no specific order…
by Stuart Horwitz
In Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, Stuart Horwitz returns with his trademark clarity to help writers craft a powerful plot and an effective outline for their works-in-progress. Whether your manuscript is an advanced draft or you are just starting out, whether you are working in fiction, film and TV, or creative nonfiction, you will learn a new approach to structure that will transform the way you look at your writing. Along the way, Horwitz offers detailed, concrete examples that reveal how the Book Architecture Method works with everything from literary classics to blockbuster films. And you won’t have to resort to using a formula–which may seem risky! But it can be done.
The next book is like a companion novel or workbook to Book Architecture, and reading both was helpful.
Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method
by Stuart Horwitz
The first draft is the easy part…
In Blueprint Your Bestseller, Stuart Horwitz offers a step-by-step process for revising your manuscript that has helped bestselling authors get from first draft to final draft. Whether you’re tinkering with your first one hundred pages or trying to wrestle a complete draft into shape, Horwitz helps you look at your writing with the fresh perspective you need to reach the finish line.
Blueprint Your Bestseller introduces the Book Architecture Method, a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.
For more than a decade this proven approach to revision has helped authors of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as writers across all media from theater to film to TV.
Steering the Craft
by Ursula K. Le Guin
A revised and updated guide to the essentials of a writer’s craft, presented by a brilliant practitioner of the art.
Completely revised and rewritten to address the challenges and opportunities of the modern era, this handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing. Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. She also offers a comprehensive guide to working in writing groups, both actual and online.
Writing Irresistable Kidlit: The The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers
by Mary Kole
Masterly and concise, Steering the Craft deserves a place on every writer’s shelf.
Captivate the hearts and minds of young adult readers!
Writing for young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) audiences isn’t just “kid’s stuff” anymore–it’s kidlit! The YA and MG book markets are healthier and more robust than ever, and that means the competition is fiercer, too. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, literary agent Mary Kole shares her expertise on writing novels for young adult and middle grade readers and teaches you how to:
Recognize the differences between middle grade and young adult audiences and how it impacts your writing.
Tailor your manuscript’s tone, length, and content to your readership.
Avoid common mistakes and cliches that are prevalent in YA and MG fiction, in respect to characters, story ideas, plot structure and more.
Develop themes and ideas in your novel that will strike emotional chords.
Mary Kole’s candid commentary and insightful observations, as well as a collection of book excerpts and personal insights from bestselling authors and editors who specialize in the children’s book market, are invaluable tools for your kidlit career.
If you want the skills, techniques, and know-how you need to craft memorable stories for teens and tweens, Writing Irresistible Kidlit can give them to you.
The Art of X-Ray Reading
by Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark, one of America’s most influential writing teachers, draws writing lessons from 25 great texts. Where do writers learn their best moves? They use a technique that Roy Peter Clark calls X-ray reading, a form of reading that lets you penetrate beyond the surface of a text to see how meaning is actually being made. In THE ART OF X-RAY READING, Clark invites you to don your X-ray reading glasses and join him on a guided tour through some of the most exquisite and masterful literary works of all time, from The Great Gatsby to Lolita to The Bluest Eye, and many more. Along the way, he shows you how to mine these masterpieces for invaluable writing strategies that you can add to your aresenal and apply in your own writing. Once you’ve experienced X-ray reading, your writing will never be the same again.
Writing the Breakout Novel
by Donald Maass
Take your fiction to the next level!
Maybe you’re a first-time novelist looking for practical guidance. Maybe you’ve already been published, but your latest effort is stuck in mid-list limbo. Whatever the case may be, author and literary agent Donald Maass can show you how to take your prose to the next level and write a breakout novel – one that rises out of obscurity and hits the best-seller lists.
Maass details the elements that all breakout novels share – regardless of genre – then shows you writing techniques that can make your own books stand out and succeed in a crowded marketplace.
You’ll learn to:
establish a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place
weave subplots into the main action for a complex, engrossing story
create larger-than-life characters that step right off the page
explore universal themes that will interest a broad audience of readers
sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish
develop an inspired premise that sets your novel apart from the competition
Then, using examples from the recent works of several best-selling authors – including novelist Anne Perry – Maass illustrates methods for upping the ante in every aspect of your novel writing. You’ll capture the eye of an agent, generate publisher interest and lay the foundation for a promising career.
Made to Stick
by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The instant classic about why some ideas thrive, why others die, and how to improve your idea’s chances—essential reading in the “fake news” era.
Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.
Made to Stick will transform the way you communicate. It’s a fast-paced tour of success stories (and failures): the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who drank a glass of bacteria to prove a point about stomach ulcers; the charities who make use of the Mother Teresa Effect; the elementary-school teacher whose simulation actually prevented racial prejudice.
Provocative, eye-opening, and often surprisingly funny, Made to Stick shows us the vital principles of winning ideas—and tells us how we can apply these rules to making our own messages stick.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work.
“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
I’d love to hear what you’re currently reading to improve your writing craft!
Thanksgiving Day, my family was gathering for the traditional feast. The golden-brown turkey sat, half-carved, surrounded by decimated side dishes of candied yams and mashed potatoes and gravy.
“What’s up with you?”
Should I say it out loud? Gulp. “Well, I wrote a novel.”
“A novel? Well, I’ll be darned. You wrote a whole book?” My uncle’s eyebrows rose when I nodded. The clink of silverware on plates quieted down. “Wow! You’re gonna be the next J.K. Rowling!”
My cousin chimes in. “What’re you gonna do with all the money?”
“Yeah, I could really use some help.”
The most painful thing…
The accomplishment of writing a novel took the backseat on a very long bus. They asked what it was about and responded with a, “Huh. I don’t really read that.” I’d devoted hundreds of hours to it, but there was no way for them to understand that it was becoming a part of who I was in a way I didn’t even comprehend. But I felt it.
My family tried to be supportive in their own way by telling me I’d be as successful as J.K. Rowling (and they could really use the financial boost, too). But that also sets up the expectation that I’m no good unless I sell millions of copies. And I hadn’t even decided I wanted to be published.
Fun Fact: The majority of authors sell around 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a novel.
And read it? That was a whole other mixed bag of emotions. Some wanted to read it, like my mom and gram. That made me so nervous. The mom in my novel was the villain. Yikes! And what if they hated it? What if it actually was terrible?
Most of my family didn’t want to read, which made me feel a whole different kind of lame. Like I wasn’t worth a few hours of their time.
The reality is, most people think that if you write a novel, the getting it published is easy. Even self-publishing, which is a much more direct path, takes editing, copy editing, dumping some money into a cover, and a part-time marketing job to sell a decent number of copies. A select few people know how difficult it is to take a manuscript and get it across the Big-5 finish line. So digest comments about your writing while also keeping their blissful ignorance in mind. They probably don’t mean to hurt you. They most likely don’t realize they’re doing it. I know that over the years since this, my family has watched me struggle and improve and been supportive to the best of their ability.
It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to even write a novel, and by the time you’re finished, it’s such a part of you. Having that be rejected and criticized and even just passed by can be a painful experience. But if you never share your novel, you’ll never find a whole other joy that comes from the writing process–the connection with your reader. And it’s worth it. You’ll find that people who read your books will gain things from it you never intended. They’ll have joy in an escape of your making.
You can share it with your family, let them read it, but don’t make them your critique partners. Your mom or gram or sister are most likely not going to give you the real critique you need. Find and connect with other writers out there who write in your genre and age category. It matters. And as you edit other people’s work, you’ll see an improvement in your own writing as well.
Or maybe you just want to write the first draft. Sometimes all we want is to give ourselves the escape. If that’s what writing is for you, you shouldn’t feel like you have to publish your novel. If you have a dream to be published, then go for it! I’ve gone back and forth over the years, not wanting to publish, wishing I could, hoping to go Big-5, thinking Independent presses would be a better way to go. Every one of those feelings and avenues is valid and should be respected.
And when you come out about your writing to people, give yourself a break, too. It’s okay to have all those feelings. Just don’t stew in them or let them get in the way of your dream.
My family lived in a tiny house that didn’t take much to clean. My kids had all just gone back to school. I was doing some freelance work with solid modeling–a remnant from my engineering days–but I found myself with time. It felt surreal. So after I’d remodeled the bathroom, I sat down one day with the idea, a character, and basic outline for a first chapter in mind. I’d just jot it down.
Words spilled onto the page. I had no idea what I was doing. But in that moment, I fell in love with writing in a way I’d never done with any other type of art or work. Five hours later, I got a call from the school that I’d forgotten to pick up my kids.
The key to overcoming that blank page is ideas. I’d had kept so many stories for so long in my head, when I finally sat down, I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t know how to type then but forced myself to keep my fingers in the right place and stare at the keyboard as I learned to type while writing the story. There’s a post here on where to come up with ideas.
Several months later, by the time I’d finished the first chapter, I had 230,000 words in my file.
What I didn’t realize then: I used a lot of those words to build my world, to tell myself all the backstory of who my characters were, why they had these fascinating traits that made them so unique, and all the other things an author needs to know about. (But the reader doesn’t need to know all those things.) Still, I had my first manuscript.
And it was a win!
Even if you ever get published, you should take the time to celebrate every single success. Because the completion of a first draft, the completion of a revision, every step is important in the process.
I remember dreaming about sending it to publishers and knowing they’d all love it as much as I loved it. I didn’t even know about agents, what a query was, A synopsis–impossible to get all that into three pages, which is what the standard was at the time. (Now it’s one.) But I didn’t care. I’d written a brilliant-to-me novel.
In a way, I’m glad I was so naive. It gave me the chance to relish the fact that I’d done it without the worry of how difficult the publishing industry is to navigate. And that’s something that’s quickly taken away from you by the rejection. If you can find a way to never let go of that feeling, no matter who rejects you, do it. I’ve lost and found it several times over the years, and it’s a precious gift to write a book 100% for the joy of what you get out of it.
Ideas are common. Good ideas are less common. High concept ideas are rare. The good news is, they can be constructed if you know how.
When you’re writing, you’re constantly creating. It takes a lot of energy and mental effort. I think of my brain like a battery. It needs recharged. When I’ve spent all day expending creative energy, it needs to be fed with experiences, listening to other people’s thoughts and ideas, and discovering new things about the world. We also need an environment where even bad ideas are allowed to be shared, where mistakes can be made without shame, and our minds are allowed to go to new places without fear of what others will think.
So every day, I like to make sure to learn something new and write down one possible way that idea could be used as a premise for a story. I read the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I especially like their Demystified articles. Or I ask a questions about how something is done. I used to love watching “How It’s Made” with my kids. There’s so much information out there now, it’s easy to learn new things.
Most of these ideas will be okay. Some will be terrible. Some will be great.
As a storyteller of any kind, the ideas that garner the most attention and usually reach the largest audience are high concept ideas. There are the general tenants of a high concept idea or premise:
The ability to entertain a mass audience…
This just means it needs to appeal universally. It should have at its core something that will ‘speak’ to or is a common experience for most people. It’s the human experience.
An emotional focus….
This will usually manifest as a theme that resonates emotionally with a lot of people.
Asks a ‘what if’ question…
These are questions you could ask yourself or that could arise from combining ideas together. More about this later. But it’s the question that creates curiosity. Like what if instead of normal animals in a zoo, you could see dinosaurs and add in a theme part ride or safari–Jurrasic Park.
It’s unique and original…
Not everything about the story will be unique, and rarely are things original. But things that are done in a more unique format or medium that showcase an idea in a different way can make something higher concept. An example is the movie Avatar. It took a basic story like the Pocahantas legend and added in the idea of aliens and then added in the idea of body-borrowing. Mix that with our next tenant.
With movies, this is easier to conceptualize. For the written word, it has to be vivid, use specific words that create new and amazing worlds.
Now take two or three of your own amazing ideas and put them together. They can sound crazy. They might sound outlandish. But that’s how to make things fresh and exciting and different. If you do this enough, you’ll begin coming up with high-concept ideas that you love, that are ideal for showcasing the theme you’ve been toying around with, or fit perfectly with that main character you’ve always connected with.
Here are some other places you can look to learn how to get new ideas…
How does the metaphorical lightbulb go off? Is it a flash of genius? The power of crowds? These heady talks explore the nature of ideas themselves: Where they come from, how they evolve, and how each of us can nurture them.
I began college as an Aerospace Engineering student. I’d watched Top Gun a hundred-plus times and wanted to be Kelly McGillis. I loved planes. They fascinated me. I skipped class to go (with a guy) see the space shuttle land at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. I skipped class to go see the SR-71 at the Pima Air Museum. I also skipped class to ride (with a different guy) in an Aston Martin to get Dunkin’ Donuts.
And it was always Math and Physics I skipped. I should’ve known then that my passion was words.
But alas, I’m truly fascinated by all kinds of things. So after two years of Engineering, I found another love in the world of Biochemistry and received a Bachelor’s in that field and worked in a plant sciences lab. I loved it. I think I could’ve loved a lot of things. And then during a terrible pregnancy, I had to quit. After many complications and several months of recovery, I started my own company bidding and installing signs for new construction. I loved that, too, because it let me be at home with my kids and have a way to earn money. After two more children within three years, I ended that business to focus on my kids.
And I loved it. Every minute? No. But really, my kids fascinated me. They were like little science experiments, creations, and I’d never felt so lucky or blessed to be a part of something so remarkable as being a mother. Some people have told me I missed my calling in life because I spent my best years on my kids. They can think that. I certainly don’t regret it one bit.
But all of that life experience gave me ideas. Experience is the best thing for creativity and emotional resonance. If you’ve never been through things, it’s nearly impossible to write about it.
I was doing things worth writing as well as all the mundane chores that go along with life. Occasionally, I’ve felt behind when I hear about people who have been writing novels since they were in middle school or high school and end up published in their twenties. While being truly happy for them, I also used to feel like I was somehow not as good because I didn’t begin writing until later in life.
Yes, I won an Arizona State poetry contest when I was in second grade. But it didn’t stick.
Maybe I won’t ever be as good as those writers. Maybe I will. In reality, this is my journey, and the only person who can allow me to be upset by it is myself.
The problem is comparison.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Ever. Just don’t. As many books as there are in the world, there are even more writing journeys. Your journey is never wrong. It might be complicated. It might take you somewhere you didn’t plan. But every step will teach you something if you let it, which will only make you that much more prepared for the future.
I’d love to hear what your day job is and if you love it as much as writing.