I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about how we only get about 10% of any one person’s story. We see only the parts they are willing to share–the happy parts, mostly. We shield others from our heartaches. If we do share, we share a small sliver. For example: On Facebook, which I consider an exaggerated highlights reel of people’s lives, you see a friend get an amazingly good job, or have a baby, or whatever, and maybe you think, “They have all the luck.” The truth may involve months of unemployment, or a devastating miscarriage, or whatever, but we don’t know any of that.
In the writing world, it’s easy to envy writers who SEEM to have found success easily. From an outside perspective, it appears that–BAM!–they got a book–their very first book!–on the best seller list. But, usually, there’s a long story leading up to that moment. It’s rare for it to just magically…happen. I’ve come to assume all of us–writers and non-writers–struggle in different ways.
Most writers are like me–stubborn and persistent. Most of us have dealt with A LOT of rejection. I have a book coming out in early 2016, but it’s not my first book. It’s not even my second. It’s my…sixth? Seventh? I’ve kind of lost count. I’ve been writing novels since I was 20, so 15 years. The agent I have now isn’t my first. I’ve had 2 before. There were several times I wanted to give up. Several.
Author/editor/writing teacher Jordan Rosenfeld wrote a book called A Writer’s Guide to Persistence which is for any writer who has dealt with obstacles on the journey to publication–which I’d venture to say is 99% of writers. She says:
“The only successful strategy I’ve ever seen work for writers to achieve their writing and publishing goals is persistence. And what, precisely is persistence? Is it something you’re born with, a gene that switches on as soon as you take your first English class? Of course not. Persistence is an attitude of flexibility and curiosity, rooted in passion or love for your craft, bolstered by treating your entire writing journey as a practice. In a practice, you are working a little bit every day (and sometimes a lot), and you focus on the moment more than the end goal.”
These are her 7 secrets of highly persistent writers, as shared with Writer Unboxed:
1. Forget About Success: The most persistent writers want success as much as anyone, but they treat it as an end goal and put their focus on doing the work itself. It’s easy to be lured by that siren song of potential fame and fortune our society dangles before anyone in the creative arts, but so few realize right away. Ironically, the most successful writers are often the ones who think the least about success and focus on the daily practice of pen (or keyboard) to page.
2. Never Wait in Vain: Waiting for a publication, a publisher, or agent to get back to you can be agonizing. Persistent writers don’t just wait; they keep writing and submitting in equal measure. The more your focus is on what you’re producing, and not checking the email or snail-mail box, the more good writing you’ll eventually get done.
3. Take Risks: All writers have a comfort zone, be it genre or topic, or a certain kind of character. There’s nothing wrong with writing from your wheelhouse. But there’s great power in exploring the unknown, a territory of almost alchemical possibilities for expanding your own skills, or going somewhere surprising in your work. This can be trying your hand at an essay when you’ve always written stories, or finally writing those deep, painful stories. You want to take healthy risks, those that expand and stretch you, not discourage and thwart you. Go where you feel electricity, energy, desire, and trust yourself to rise to the occasion.
4. Collaborate: Persistent writers accept that we need other writers—be it for cheerleading, or resource sharing, feedback or commiseration. Writing is often a lonely art and it’s easy to listen to the critical voices in your own head. Don’t forget to call on the writers in your cohort to help you up out of the ditch of despair or brainstorm, or offer you feedback you know you can trust.
5. Set boundaries: Persistent writers have to say no a lot. They say no to allowing interruptions to their writing time; to letting the wrong people read their work; to social activities in favor of writing time. They learn to treat writing time as work time.
6. Take Side-Doors and Back-Alleys: Some of the most persistent writers I know did not listen to only accepted advice. I know writers who sold books straight to publishers without an agent. Those who self-published first and caught the attention of a big publisher. Those who freelance wrote for local publications and worked their way up to big publications bit by bit. If you only take a proscribed path, you’ll only have one set of experiences; make your own path and find your own version of success.
7. Plant a Passion Root: I saved the best and most important piece of advice for last. You will persist if you plant what I call a “passion root.” If you’ve ever tried to take out a rose bush, you know that their roots are impossibly deep and indestructible and they will come back to life even after being cut down to the nub. Plant your own roots of purpose deep in the ground of meaning. Something drives you to write, brings you back to it when it’s hard, makes the challenges worthwhile, but it probably gets lost in the critical voices, the difficult days, after rejection, etc. Your passion root can be something such as: writing gives you a voice when you never had one; you feel you’re making a contribution to the world or a certain cause through writing; you feel most alive when you write. It doesn’t matter if your passion is a means to a financial end or just your deepest desire. Following what you love most about writing will help you stick to it through all the hardships.
I would like to give a solid AMEN to #5. I’m constantly struggling with setting boundaries–feeling guilty when I do and guilty when I don’t. Thanks to Jordan Rosenfeld for these tips!
You should see my list of books to buy. It has hundreds of titles on it. I am always, always, always on the search for new writers to fall in love with. Sometimes, I just read a blurb about a new book and I put it on my list until my next binge buy. I love the feeling of “discovering” someone new. If I really like a book, I look for it in the bookstores and I do one simple thing to give it some love–turn it so the cover faces out.
I’ve been doing this for years because I empathize with all the new writers out there (and, yes, I hope karma will work in my favor when my book comes out). Hundreds of books get published every year and only a handful are read by masses of people. Lots of people don’t realize how much bookstore placement affects readership; and lots of people don’t realize that much of bookstore placement is dictated by money. Big publishing houses pay for those prime displays at the front of the store, those end cap slots, those “best of” categorizations. That’s all fine and dandy, but remember that big publishing houses aren’t exactly risk takers. They will put their money into sure things. First-timers are unlikely to get prime shelf space.
There was a great little article on TheAtlantic.com about this very issue. The author, Susan Coll, director of events at Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C., says:
“Turning a book face out is an act of tremendous power, or so it feels when you are working at an independent bookstore at a moment that has major chains shrinking and Amazon wreaking havoc with publishing’s already fragile ecosystem. In a bookstore, you can decide, unilaterally, without having to ask permission or sit in an hour-long meeting, to simply face out Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance because, well, because it’s one of your favorite books…”
(I suggest you click through to read the whole article. It’s interesting).
Most of us don’t even visit bookstores all that often anymore. Admittedly, I buy 90% of my books online. But, next time you do venture to a bookstore, think of an author you love and turn their cover to face out. You’ll feel good about it, trust me.
As I said in my last post, one of the most common questions I get asked in regards to my book deal is, “Do you get to design the cover?” This is a hilarious inquiry considering my artistic skill. At this point, the book cover is still a mystery to me. I’m assuming the publishing house has artists on staff. (Side note: What a cool job). A book cover is really important, if you ask me. There have been plenty of times I have read a book (for better or worse) because the cover was cool. Right now, I have In Case of Emergency and Fourth of July Creek (both below) in my Amazon cart because the covers caught my attention.
I went back and looked at some of last year’s book covers. These are my 10 favorites:
These are the 2 most common questions I’ve been asked by people in regards to my upcoming book:
1. Do you get to design the cover?
2. Will it be a movie?
As for #1, I sincerely hope I don’t design the cover because I can barely draw a stick figure. Furthermore, I have no idea how the book cover design process goes, but I’ll do a post about it when I find out.
As for #2, I sincerely hope it becomes a movie, but I’m not holding my breath.
There are lots of examples of books becoming movies. Bestsellers like Gone Girl, Wild, and The Hunger Games became big-screen hits.
Other recent adaptations: This is Where I Leave You (based on Jonathan Tropper’s book), You’re Not You (based on Michelle Wildgen’s book), Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (based on Nicky Flynn’s memoir), Ten Thousand Saints (based on Eleanor Henderson’s book).
Also, more and more, novels are making their way to television. Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is now a show on HBO. The Sundance Channel is developing a series based on Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and a series based on Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.
So, yes, there’s opportunity for books to make their way to Hollywood. But it’s still a long shot.
Here’s how it works:
According to “Going Hollywood: The Business of Film Adaptations” (Michael Bourne) in Poets & Writers magazine:
“Typically, once a book has sold to a publisher, if the author’s agent thinks it would make a good film or TV series, that agent will hand off the manuscript to someone with contacts at Hollywood studios and indie film companies. If studio executives see potential in a manuscript, or if an author has a wide enough readership, producers may snatch up a book before it is even published, but for most so-called midlist authors–that is, writers who don’t write best-sellers–producers wait until a book is in stores before making a commitment.”
Holly Frederick, an agent at Curtis Brown who specializes in marketing books to film and TV producers says, “There are a lot of bites at the apple. If you’re not able to sell it to Hollywood when it first sells to publishers, then you can wait until the galley stage, or you can wait until publication, because at publication you’ll be armed with reviews, you will be armed with press, and hopefully a best-seller mention or two, and that also perks up the studio’s ears.”
Because studios want blockbuster films that will do well around the world, literary novels usually end up with independent producers (if they end up anywhere at all). And the journey to getting the film made can be an arduous one.
Bourne writes: “With a book, writers need only win over an editor to see their vision of the story through to publication. Filmmakers, even those outside the Hollywood studio system, must accommodate the needs and wishes of a huge number of people, from actors and crew members to financiers and executives at film companies, each of whom helps shape the movie the audience sees.”
“For authors, the trade-off for this loss of creative control is the fat paycheck that can come from selling a book to Hollywood. But Frederick, the Curtis Brown agent, says writers need to keep in mind how rarely that big paycheck actually arrives. In most cases, when producers want to adapt a book for the screen, they first pay the author a small option fee. This payment gives producers twelve to eighteen months to get a screenplay written, find a director and perhaps a bankable star, and otherwise assemble the component parts of a project that will attract the millions of dollars it takes to make even a modest feature film.”
So, how much is a “small option fee”? What kind of money are we talking?
Bourne writes: “The rule of thumb, according to Frederick, is that the dramatic rights for a book by a midlist author are valued at 2.5 percent of the production budget, with 10 percent coming up front and the remaining 90 percent only paid if the project goes forward. This means that if producers expect a movie to cost $10 million, a writer could expect to receive $25,000 for the initial option, with another $225,000 coming due if the movie gets produced.”
“Add to this the writer’s share of any profits the screen adaptation earns–typically, Frederick says, writers receive 5 percent of the producer’s net profit–along with any bump in book sales driven by the heavy promotion of a Hollywood production, and an author of a book that spawns a hit film or TV series is in for a rich payday indeed.”
“But here’s the rub: Only a tiny fraction of books optioned by Hollywood make it to the screen.”
“Frederick says she negotiates thirty to forty page-to-screen options a year, and of those no more than two or three get made into movies or television shows. It is even rarer, she says, for a movie or series to make enough money for the writer of the original book to see a share of the net profits.”
Cue the sad music.
Her advice? “Write the novel you want to write. Don’t write with an eye toward the screen, because it’s probably not going to make it there.”
Well, works for me. I didn’t even think about my book becoming a movie until people started asking me about it.
What better way to motivate me (and you?) to read more than a CHALLENGE? I love being able to measure progress according to rules. Type A Nerd alert.
Here’s the challenge that Book Riot posed on the eve of 2015. Click the image to learn more about it and get recommendations for each category. Important: You can’t use a book for more than 1 category. A book set in Asia, written by someone under the age of 25, and published by an indie press only counts for 1 of those categories. You will be surprised how many books fit in multiple categories. You will want to cheat. Don’t.
You have 9 months left to read all 24 books. That’s 1 book every week-and-a-half. I’m more than half way done and it’s only been a few months. And, trust me, I don’t get that much time to read. I read for about 20 minutes on my lunch break at work and 20 minutes before bed. That’s a good day. Some days, because life gets in the way, I don’t read at all. So, this is totally doable.
What I’ve loved about this challenge so far is that it’s forced me to read books I wouldn’t normally read. For example, one of my favorite books so far is a book of poetry. I NEVER read poetry. So, go do it and tell me what you read! Have fun.