Drive and desire are two words that can be either nouns or verbs. Both are critical to fulfilling the dream to be a published novelist, particularly when you have neither fame nor connections to make you attractive to the publishing world. And they are equally important for the “average Joe” who maintains a day job to pay the bills while waiting (hoping) for writing to pay off.
The odds are against success for most wannabe writers, especially if your definition of success is acceptance of a novel by a major publisher – with an advance large enough to demonstrate the publisher is invested in the book’s success.
Most major publishing houses will not consider unagented submissions. The successful agents are the gatekeepers of access to major publishers, screening out all but the highest quality manuscripts. So unless you have a famous name, you have to win over an agent’s enthusiastic support for your book first. And that’s a daunting task. I recently heard an agent say that on average about 10% of query letters to agents result in requests for manuscripts or parts of manuscripts. Of those manuscripts that are submitted, fewer than 10% result in an offer of representation by the agent. That’s one in one hundred, and the agent still has to sell the book to a publisher, an outcome that isn’t guaranteed.
Still, just to get as far as securing representation, the book (particularly of a new/unknown writer) has to excel, to stand out in the crowd. So you never, ever send a manuscript that is just “good enough” – that is, one that you know needs more work. A writer recently remarked to me that is wasn’t worth the effort to perfect a manuscript because inevitably the agent and/or eventual editor is going to want changes. Did that statement make a clanging bell go off for you? It should.
The painful truth is, if the manuscript you submit to an agent isn’t the absolute best it can be, you can count on falling into the ninety percent of writers whose work is rejected. There just is too much competition for “good enough.” Neither agents nor editors have time to help you rework your manuscript into marketable form – and why should they when there are writers out there with the drive and desire to polish their manuscript to a high sheen before submitting to agents? A catchy query might get your foot in the door, but a well-written manuscript with great characterization, a page turning story line and the right amount of tension in all the right places is what will get you that positive response from an agent. Well – assuming you did your homework, and the agent handles the kind of book you’re submitting. And assuming he/she didn’t just pick up a writer whose manuscript has enough similarities that would put it in direct competition with yours.
So yes, there’s an element of luck and timing involved also.
If you are really committed to your goal of seeing your novel published by a major publisher, you have to challenge every excuse you make for putting off writing. My life is busier now than it’s ever been, between a full time job, a three-hour round trip driven commute, training for long distance running (marathons and half marathons), knitting an average of two complicated sweaters per year, ordinary household chores, and fitting in some quality time with my husband and dog (not always in that order, I’m embarrassed to admit). But unlike as recently as ten years ago – when competing obligations won out over writing time – now writing-related activities (including studying and taking webinars and courses, researching agents, attending conferences in addition to writing and revising) have risen closer to the top of my priorities. It’s even won higher priority in my budget, allowing course, conference, editing and other expenses.
Only you can decide whether you have enough drive and desire to pursue success in writing, to make time for it in your life no matter what.
My debut novel, Autumn Colors, was published first by a small, traditional publisher. When it went out of print, I self-published it, because I was not successful in finding representation. Had I known then what I know now, things might have been different. I’ve learned a lot by immersing myself in the world of writing and being open to what others, particularly experts in the field, can teach me. I have a better feel for what works, for what agents and editors want. And I won’t be sending the manuscript for my second book anywhere until I am one hundred percent certain that it meets the industry’s high bar. It’s become a bit of an obsession, and is taking longer than I’d hoped.
Disappointments abound. And obstacles are many. But aren’t they just more reasons why drive and desire are so key?