Meeting Mr. Big

Most professions spawn myths. They cling pretty tightly, despite the facts. Like: Actors are superstitious. Screenwriting is a glamorous line of work.

These things are fun to say and think about, but they just aren’t generally true.

Writing, particularly novel writing, has a few myths of its own. In my next few posts I’ll cover a few of them. Sometimes aspiring novelists (not all–I know some of you are doing your homework!) don’t have a realistic notion of what they’re getting into. So let’s explode some preconceptions that may get us off on the wrong foot.

I’m here to say that the reality of being an author and getting (and staying) published is way less dramatic than many people believe when they’re first starting out. But the truth of it is also less daunting.

Myth #1. It’s All in Who You Know

This one is surrounded by a romantic plot line that goes something like this:  You struggle for years in obscurity (usually on one, soul-sucking novel) until you finally get a big break. You meet the right person. At last! An agent, say. Or an editor.

For fun, let’s call this person Mr. Big. Once you meet Mr. Big, you’re on your way.

This myth comes from the sneaking suspicion that life is somehow rigged. Success, according to this view, is about connections, pressure points, a secret handshake — and Mr. Big. I’m not trying to make fun of people for buying into this one, because this is what I used to believe back when I would have given anything to have a novel published by a nice big publishing house.

There is a Mr. Big, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that he isn’t quite who you think.

The Reality

Mr. Big is in truth Mr. Worried. He worries about finding a good story, well told, that he can put his cred on the line for. Because he needs to make a decent income off a new novel, and so do you, the author. But he’s seen a lot of bad stories, so he is used to be being disappointed — whether he is an agent or an editor.

For these financial reasons, he doesn’t care who you are (usually.) He is not impressed by who you know:  J.A. Jance, Stephen King, John Scalzi. These people no doubt have nieces and cousins, and you may be one of them, but that doesn’t mean that you have a good story, well told. These big people may recommend you to their agent, (please don’t ask, them, btw) but it really just puts pressure on that agent to write an especially nice rejection letter. If the story doesn’t grip him.

Mr. Big doesn’t care where you live. Maybe its Tallahassee, Dubuque or Wenatchee, Washington. Because none of that is a predictor of whether you’ve got the next The Girl on the Train.

For all these same reasons, he–or she–also doesn’t pay any attention to what your day job is. Unless you’re a celebrity. If you’re a celebrity, the wheels are greased, it’s true,  because your name is inherently worth something. But that’s not us, so we can move on.

How about that creative writing course, or that MFA? Courses may be helpful to learn writing skills (different opinions on that one) but an agent or editor is not going to take a look at your manuscript because you have a degree or studied with (name that writing guru.) You may really know your metaphors, but what Mr. Big needs is a GOOD STORY, WELL TOLD. If his stable/line-up is full, maybe he’ll require a GREAT STORY.

So no, who you know, who you are, where you’ve been, is not  important.

But isn’t it heartening that you can live in Dubuque, be a taxi cab driver, and never have hobnobbed with any famous authors, and you can still have a bit of career as a novelist?

How then, is it done?

You break in and keep your career afloat by learning your craft, always striving to improve and writing a lot of stories and submitting them. For some of us that means  keeping doing that our whole lives, even in the periods when no will buy our next story. It’s a bit of a tough life, submitting our work to the judgments of the marketplace. But at least it isn’t about Mr. Big.

I told you the truth wouldn’t be dramatic.

But I love the idea that it’s always about the story. I’m also fond of the idea (I don’t think it’s a myth) that no matter how your career is going right at this minute, it’s always about the next book. Which in any given year may be the best thing you’ve ever written.

Nothing is rigged. It isn’t who you know. It’s what you write, and how you keep writing, with faith in the story, and the willingness to be tested by the marketplace.

Next time: Myth #2: Glamour and Prestige (I haven’t written that post yet but I’m already laughing my head off.)

7 Responses

  1. Tony Barrett says:

    Nicely done. I’m not an aspiring writer, but I’ve often wondered about these myths.

  2. Kay says:

    Thanks, Tony. I think some of these ideas come from a sweet wish that the world was not so tough. So myths aren’t a bad thing, and they’ll always be with us.

  3. William-Stephen Taylor says:

    As I was reading this I remembered when I started out (writing terribly) sending my very badly written meaningless plots to agents and publishers sticking to their rules and being angry at not being told why my story was rejected. Then I read about slush piles/mountains and why stories were rejected, some without being read and this awful woman who wrote: “I read the first fifteen lines and I know whether the story is good or not.”
    I’ve been on Authonomy and received a lot of excellent and also ‘well-meaning’ advice after which I started to try and educate myself.
    After a couple of years and chatting to others on ‘author help sites’ I took the easy way out by self publishing on amazon.
    I purchased a book around five years ago: ‘Year’s best SF 16’. It is where I discovered you, writing about something that is a growing concern today; plastic in our seas, poisoning the life there.
    I read and write crime, Sci-Fi fantasy and a mixture of both, I also write tales of the Holocaust. I am a Time Travel addict.
    I had a minor stroke in 2008. Now I have to use a spell checker, but my imagination is still alive and kicking.
    It is comforting to know that there are authors like you out there who care about beginners, like myself and others, whose dreams have faded leaving reality in their place.
    Thank you.

  4. Kay says:

    Hi William–thanks for writing. I’m glad my post struck a chord, and to hear that you are have an interest in writing SF/F, my favorite genres. I’m one of those people who think that if one loves to write, there will always be markets for you to try. I would start with gaining a broad knowledge of the sf/f magazines like Uncanny, Lightspeed and others. This is where many SF/F writers get their start; not at the big magazines, but some of the smaller ones. Read these magazines and get a sense for what they are buying, and the range of plot structures and story concepts. It would a fun learning experience, I think, and you would also have the pleasure of reading some great stories.
    The thing about writing is that you never have to quite no matter your age.
    It is true that for some, a novel is not in the cards. It is so competitive and if it takes 8 years to break in, most people don’t find it worth it. But SF/F magazines (and don’t forget about novellas, often accepted at magazines) are part of a vibrant market and worth pursuing.
    If you are a time travel fan, you might like my novel The Seeds of Time
    Best wishes to you!

  5. […] last post on “myths” was on finding Mr. Big, or the person we assume will save us and how (not) to get this person’s […]

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