Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Forget your book. Rewrite your attitude

Had two encounters with unpubbed writers this week. This is kind of like a Yeti sighting but in some ways more terrifying. Because you never know if they're going to turn on you. You never know when they're going to open their mouths and show those fangs of bad attitude.

I like helping unpubs. I was one once, rejected by every publisher in New York before someone took a chance on me. I know the heartbreak. I know how hard and utterly confusing this all is. But I also know -- learned this through ten years experience publishing books now -- how important having the right attitude is. In fact, attitude might be more important than talent in this game. So when I meet an unpubbed with a bad one, I have learned not to waste my time or breath trying to help.

Back to the two unpubs I met this week. I had agreed to give some advice over coffee. We talked about their writing, and I answered questions. I had read the first 30 pages or so of their manuscripts ahead of time. But I didn't really need to. I could tell from just talking to them which one is going to get published and which one never will. See if you can figure it out:

Unpub A:

  • Wrote eight books.
  • Tried writing both romance and mysteries.
  • Has had all eight books rejected by editors.
  • Just finished a ninth book.
  • Queried 12 agents and got one to take her on.
  • Agent-submitted ninth book was rejected by five New York editors who all said book had promise but was too slow and lacked suspense.
  • Is still working on Book 9 trying to fix pacing problems.
  • Is reading books on how to write suspense
  • Has enrolled in the upcoming SleuthFest Thriller workshop
  • Is thinking she should submit the book to small presses instead of the biggies just to get her foot in the door.
  • Is working on a new idea and outline about a series PI just in case an editor wants a series instead of a standalone.

Unpub B:

  • Finished one book.
  • Bought an established author's critique at a writers conference charity auction. Established writer sent back critique of the first 50 pages with suggestions to improve book.
  • Didn't change a thing.
  • Sent queries to agents. Was very offended by the "lack of personal tone" of the rejections.
  • Got an eager Florida-based agent to take on him on.
  • Didn't change title after agent suggested it wasn't very marketable.
  • Book was rejected after multiple submissions.
  • Didn't change a thing.
  • Is looking for a "more connected" agent.
  • Had book published POD. Sent a copy to the established author asking for a blurb.
  • Didn't like my suggestion that he hone his story down to a single POV and make his plot linear, cutting the confusing flashbacks. Said the book "needed multiple POVs because of the story's complexity demanded it" and that his book was "not really genre fiction but more literary, like Mystic River."
  • Thinks there is a cabal in New York publishing designed to keep POD authors from participating in the distribution system.
  • Hasn't started a new book...but has lots of ideas.

I think you get the idea. Too bad unpub B never will. Yes, you can still write the book you want to and get it published. No, you don't have to sell out. But you have to be smart.

Being smart means learning your craft and walking before you run. (I'm guessing Unpub B never read the five Pat Kenzie Angie Gennaro books Dennis Lehane churned out BEFORE Mystic River).

It means listening to good advice when you are lucky enough to get it.

It means not taking every rejection personally. An agent or editor sends out a hundred SASEs a week and when they say no they aren't rejecting you. They are rejecting your work. There is a difference.

It means writing maybe ten books before you get it right.

It means not automatically expecting the "big" writers to reach down and pull you up. If it happens, consider yourself blessed and give back when it's your turn. But don't whine if it doesn't happen.

It means increasing your chances by making your work as marketable as you can without being false to the writer you are.

It means not not looking for short cuts.

It means not giving up.

It means having the right attitude.


Anonymous Tammy Durston said...

This an an excellent column and I do appreciate your honesty. It is very generous of you to read 30 pages of someone's manuscript. Reading this inspired me to keep going--trying new voices, editing the second manuscript (Book #1 is with my agent but hasn't sold yet)and being persistent. Thanks.

3:57 PM  
Blogger emeraldcite said...

Read the first five (and hit #5) and didn't have to read the rest...

Actually, the first three were enough, but I thought I'd give them a try.

Yeah. Wrong business for bad attitudes. In fact, there are few business where a bad attitude is actually good...

4:41 PM  
Blogger DZ Allen said...

I thank you for this article. Very good words of advice. As an unpub I will take it to heart and keep moving forward.

6:02 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


To crib Woody Allen's love metaphor, writers are like sharks, if they stop moving forward they die. Living in Florida, I have since found out some sharks can stay in one place forever and survive. There are writers like this on the New York Times bestseller list. We won't name names.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

Excellent advice, and an excellent post. The more I write and read about writing, the more I realise how long this whole business takes. But I'm Taurean, and in it for the long haul.

Now, if you'd just show me your neck please, madam.


(sound of author turned vampire)

8:19 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Attitude may just be the most important thing.

Many years ago, when I had three unsold mysteries (I'd sold five other books before that), a friend said to me, "I don't know what to tell you. But it's either the publishers, or your agent, or you."

Well, it couldn't be me, and it couldn't be my agent, so it had to be the publishers.

Five years later, after I came out of my stupor (I'd hit rock-bottom) I realized it was my agent *and* me. We deserved each other.

I realized that publishers aren't stupid. If the next Michael Connelly comes knocking on the door, they aren't going to say, "There are so many books set in L.A. We just don't have room. Sorry."

The only things I could affect were 1) the quality of my work, which I completely overhauled, and 2) my attitude. Actually, I had to change my attitude to address the quality of my work.

And voila! I got my publisher (Penguin/NAL/Signet) and my agent in one week.

Because I worked hard, and concentrated on writing the best novel I could. And knowing it would be different this time around because I'd put the hard work in.


9:16 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I wonder if author B knows that Lehane worked on Mystic River for 2 1/2 years; that the manuscript was knocked back and forth like a ping pong ball between editor and author for multiple revisions; that, even after it was finally worked into the beautiful novel we know it as today, the publisher didn't believe it would sell?

Lehane had the right attitude about revision suggestions, and ultimately produced a first-rate novel. Then he got lucky when it landed, completely by chance, in the hands of Clint Eastwood. THAT'S the lesson Author B should learn from Mystic River: Work as hard as you can, welcome advice from those who can help you, and hope for a little luck. It takes all of the above to sell a book.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

About 16 months ago I started studying Sanchin-Ryu karate. Part of their logo on the patch has a guy in a karate uniform, but he essentially has no head. I asked, "What, he get kicked a few too many times?" No, they said. "It represents having an open mind."

So here are just a couple of my writing truisms.

1. You're not as good as you think you are. Even bestsellers and award-winning authors; even, uh, me.

2. Shit happens. In this business as much or more than others. Get used to it.

3. It's totally subjective. One editor may love you. One may hate you. They're both right. You think readers will be any different?

4. There are very few "overnight successes" in any area of entertainment, and writing is probably worse.

5. Persistence and attitude matters. So does professionalism. Stop whining.

6. Cheer up. You could be an aspiring actor or actress. Their rejections are personal. Their work is them.

Mark Terry

10:45 AM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

Mark and Jude, your posts really put it into perspective. I agree with every word.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Mike H said...

Thanks for the great advice, but . . . unpubbed? I prefer pre-published.

2:30 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:05 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mark said there are few overnight success stories in this biz. I can't think of a one. If you want to read about "overnight successes" go visit David Montgomery's greatly entertaining site Overnight Success Stories where Barry Eisler, Mike Connelly, Ed Gorman and a host of others talk about the value of persistance.

11:10 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mike likes "pre-pubbed" instead of "unpubbed." I used to say "pre" but every time I did I got raked over the coals by other writers. Not for the attitude it implied but for the assault on the language it created.

So I dragged old my ratty old New World Dictionary and my doorstop Oxford, where I found:

"Pre" indicates:
1. Prior to, in time.
2. In front of, in space.
3. Superior to.
3. in preparation for.

"Un" by contrast indicates:

1. Lack of or opposite of
2. Removal or reversal of (VERB)

So I guess "unpublished" is technically those poor souls who were dropped by their publishers. (see no. 2)

I have no big problem with someone calling themselves pre-published for the optimism it implies. In fact, it reminds me of the little poem I have carried in my wallet since 10th grade:

I'd rather be a could be
If I couldn't be an are.
For a could be is a maybe
With a chance of reaching par.
I'd rather be a has been
Than a might have been, by far
For a might have been
Has never been
but a had was once an are.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That poem reminds me of one of the great things my mother said.

Richard Burton died and in the national news piece on him, they commented that he might have been one of the greatest actors of British stage and screen if...

And of course, if was Elizabeth Taylor and alcoholism and everything else.

My mother said, "might have been" is awfully sad.

12:25 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I guess that makes Liz the anti-muse. Wonder if the Greeks really had one.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Don't we all have anti-muses? Whatever it is that stands between us and greatness, or at least productivity?

Damned blogs!

1:16 PM  
Blogger Pat Mullan said...

PJ and Everyone,

Excellent insight into 'The Writing Life'. I've learned all these things the hard way. There were so many times when I heard Van Morrison in my ears "there'd be days like this". But I didn't know all this in the beginning. Unconnected with writers and their experiences, one can truly begin to take the whole rejection business personally. But then, if you persist, that element of luck strikes. You find an editor who's willing to spend a couple of weekends (for no money or glory) writing a 20 page dissection of your ms. If you're willing to accept much of that advice, you'll learn. Then you'll begin to meet other writers, listen to their stories and find that they have had the same experience.

And - you will write all the time - and, hopefully get better as you do. You'll write because you have to. You may never write a bestseller but you'll be happy when you sell that first novel and read those good first critical reviews. And you'll be fuelled by that. And you will write. And read. And write.

And you will be disillusioned all the time when you read that the 21 year-old daughter of your Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has landed a million dollar first book chic-lit deal, followed by a three million dollar movie deal. And one of those deals will pop up at least every six months....

But you will go on. Because you love to write. It's your life. And you'll understand that, in this business, fortitude and stamina are even more important than the ability to write..


4:55 AM  
Blogger Jerri Ledford said...

Great column! Thanks for writing it. I've been in the writing business for years and written more than I have time to list. But I'm not nearly as good a writer as some that I know. The difference is in the attitude. My philosophy is that the editor/publisher is my first customer. Make them happy, and I'll stay in business forever. It works because those people know what the end customer wants. Glad you could put it into words. And I hope that some of the newbies read it!

7:16 PM  

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