Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Secret Handshake

July 11, 2007

I was meandering through blogs the other day (in lieu of actually writing) and I came across a writer’s blog talking about mid-list authors, which she seemed to define as anyone who is not a bestseller (a subject for a different post, I suspect). Anyway, the point of her blog was that when you’re an unpublished novelist, you believe there’s some sort of secret handshake—knowing someone, meeting someone at a con, writing a particular book, writing “I look forward to hearing from you” versus “Thank you for your time” at the end of your query letter, using Courier instead of Times New Roman—that will get you published.

The truth?

Write a good, compelling novel, be persistent and get lucky.

Then the blogger went on to say that once writers (mid-list or otherwise, I suspect) get published, they start obsessing on what the secret handshake is to breaking out of mid-list into bestsellerdom—is it your blog, your website, your book tour, your postcards, your book signings, should you hire a publicist, should you blackmail Oprah?

The truth?

Hell if I know. And she didn’t either.

But let’s talk about those four categories of getting published briefly.

Write a good novel.
What’s a “good” novel? Oh, I’m ready to be tarred and feathered here. A “good” novel, in this context, is one that eventually gets published, is purchased by a reader, and read. Period.

Write a compelling novel.
Presumably a “good” novel is also a compelling novel, but the truth is, “compelling” (like good) is pretty much in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve read some supposed bestselling “compelling” thrillers that I thought were boring. In fact, one of the writers’ organizations I belong to gave a “best” award to a book I later tried to read and couldn’t even finish. So who’s to say? But the fact is, your novel, in order to be published, must be compelling to someone, presumably your editor. There’s no formula that I’m aware of.

Be persistent.
Sad truth of the publishing industry is there are a lot of books published in the U.S., but not by all that many publishers. So if you write a book and have an agent (this applies to getting an agent as well) you’re going to have to be persistent. You or your agent will need to determine a list of the 7 or 8 or 12 available publishers and quite possibly contact all of them. Legend has it that Elmore Leonard’s “Big Bounce” was rejected by 88 publishers. Every time I’ve read that I’ve thought: “Where the hell did they find 88 publishers in the United States?” Times have changed. I dare someone to come up with a list of 88 publishers, big or small, in the United States that publish mysteries or thrillers. Post it on your blog, you’ll get a ton of hits.

Get lucky.
Persistence leads to this, as does writing a “good” and “compelling” novel. But still, your manuscript, no matter how good it is, needs to land in the right editor’s hands on the right day. The day the editor got ripped in half by the publisher for her last thriller tanking and not earning back its advance is not going to be the right day for your similar thriller to land on her desk. Sorry. You have no control over this. But it does happen. By the same token, the day an editor tells your agent, “The thing I’m really looking for is a private eye mystery that takes place in Thailand” is the day your novel about Bangkok P.I. Ping Ng might have a shot.

And how does this all apply to increasing sales once published?

I think marketing is like Chinese water torture. We drop our books one at a time upon the public’s head, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We drop our postcards, blogs, e-newsletters, conference attendance, book signings, etc., on the public’s head one at a time, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We persist. We write good, compelling books. We get lucky.

Or we don’t.

No secret handshake.

Unless, of course, I know it and am not willing to tell you.

Mark Terry


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great informative post, Mark. If there is a "secret handshake," I believe it would be one that signifies persistence.

Bill Cameron said...

I know the secret handshake, but if I tell you, I'll have to kill you.

Joe Moore said...

All good points, Mark.

“In fact, one of the writers’ organizations I belong to gave a “best” award to a book I later tried to read and couldn’t even finish.“

I'm struggling through a novel right now that won the Pulitzer Prise for Fiction and was an Oprah must read. I find it extremely painful to read because the author decide to abandon all accepted norms in structure. Must be art or something. I'm at page 50 and just about to give up. The pain is not worth the pleasure.

BTW, there is a secret handshake. It's at:

Mark Terry said...

It's possible, Bill, that I DO know the secret handshake, but no aspiring writer has actually sent me a large enough check to make it worth my while.

For all those who want to know, Mail me a check for the size you think would be adequate to:

Mark Terry

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Excellent post, Mark. I've found the same thing, that a lot of so-called bestsellers or "best" books just bore me. Sometimes I wonder if I'm just strange and don't know "good" when I see it or write it. But persistence makes a lot of sense as part of the secret, and it's important to remember that luck doesn't mean sitting around waiting for someone to find us and bless us with publication. One doesn't get lucky in the lottery without buying a ticket. A writer buys the ticket by learning, improving, writing, and submitting. I guess that's all the secret handshake we get.

Felicia Donovan said...

Mark, well said. I would add "believe in yourself" to that list for those times when the rejection pile seems bigger than the manuscript.