Monday, July 23, 2012

This is Thrillerfest! - Day 3: All you need to know about publishing a novel.

We are in New York for this sixth mother-daughter trip because of my mother's obligations to speak at the back-to-back writing conferences, Craftfest and Thrillerfest. In honor of this, I'm going to give all you author hopefuls the FREE CLIFF NOTES VERSION of "take aways" you will receive at any writing conference.

Disclosure:  I am not a published author, but I have lived with a published author (of 53 novels!) all my life, so I can say with confidence that I understand firsthand the world of a successful career writer--writing, publishing, editing, deadlines, contracts, agents, platforms, fans--all of it. I have also attended enough writing conferences of my own (everything from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference to the Writer's in Paradise workshop at Eckerd College) to know this much is true:  Becoming a traditionally published author or a bestselling e-published author is a crap shoot.

Here's why . . .
If you ever attend a conference on the craft of writing, you'll undoubtedly learn in one session all the hard and fast rules of writing for this genre or that. You'll learn the proper way to outline and structure your book, to build tension and develop your characters. Then in the very next session, you will hear an expert say, "Yes, you have to do all these things and follow all these rules, but the books that are being bought today are written by people who bucked these rules. And it just works for them because they have an amazing voice.” 

Unpublished authors get really caught up in "voice," but it's not complicated at all, really. Either you have one or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can stop writing now. Well, don’t stop writing, but do stop hoping to be published traditionally.

Basically, what the industry experts repeat in these conferences--and what Lee Child so succinctly stated in one of his sessions--is that anyone can learn grammar and the elements of style and story, but at the end of the day great writing cannot be taught. It’s instinctual. What's worse, even if your writing is phenomenal that still may not be enough. The success of your writing career is hinged on one person’s opinion of your voice.

Perfect examples:
1) The keynote speaker at the Craftfest luncheon on Thursday was Jamie Raab, Senior VP and Publisher at Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books). In her speech she listed her favorite thriller/suspense books of all time. She said that these books, which included Marathon Man and Silence of the Lambs, are like the new ones she bids on now and hopes to purchase, in that they make her literally shake with excitement.

2) During an expert panel the following day, an author hopeful asked Mitch Hoffman, Executive Editor at Grand Central Publishing, “What makes you want to purchase a manuscript?” The answer was simply, “I just have to be able to walk down the hall to my publisher and say without a shadow of a doubt, ‘I love this book. I have to have it.’”

So basically, all your hopes and dreams are pinned on one gatekeeper's taste, which is predetermined by his or her upbringing, eating preferences, whether they like wide wale or thin corduroy pants and a million other factors which you cannot possibly know or write to. So here's the deal:  If you finish your book and send it out to a couple agents and get a couple rejections, Don't. Give. Up. Publisher Jamie Raab's fireplace kindling may be agent Dan Conaway's next bestseller.

That said, if you've heard repeatedly from critique groups, professional editors and agents at conference pitch sessions that your story and/or writing style is bunk, there is a consensus there, and you can safely assume it's not just that you haven't found the right person to appreciate your voice. Your voice is weak. Start over or give up. If you're a real writer, you will not pick the latter.

And much as it pains them all to admit it, I have recently heard conference experts reveal that, unfortunately, even if you are not a real writer, and you have no interest in taking the time to develop your writing chops but plenty of interest in making money, you still have options. With the exciting, uncharted world of e-publishing, you can skip over all the agents, editors and publishing houses and self-publish your crappy, no-voice-having e-book and watch it turn into fifty shades of million dollar bills.  Just don't bank on becoming the next E.L. James. Her success was a perfect, arbitrary storm that illustrates the importance of platform and timing in book purchasing today. Here's a woman who blogged fan fiction in the right genre at the right time touching an unspanked... er, um, untapped market of 40-something housewives hungry for stand-in angsty lust in between Twilight movie releases. She showed publishing houses an undeniable fan base (which = cha-ching!) and THEN they wanted to buy her. It would appear then, that you have not only your story, your writing and your voice to sell to the gatekeepers. You also have to prove without a shadow of a doubt that you can sell hundreds of thousands of books (and note this in your query letter: "I have been #2 on Amazon's Kindle Top 100 list for 38 weeks!") before an agent will accept your manuscript.

Sound like an eagle's nest of contradictions? It is.

OK, maybe I'm being a little dramatic (but not really). Here is all you really need to know about writing and getting published in 2012:  FIRST, finish your book. From there, just as in any crap shoot, all things are possible because the game is always changing.


  1. Having worked in publishing & attended acquisitions meeting, it's amazing how (YES), it can truly come down to one person's opinion. That said, I love YOUR voice Heather Lambie. I can't wait to read your unpublished manuscript... until you win he crap shoot, which I have no doubt you will. :)

  2. Thanks so much, Lynn. I love ya!

  3. Perfect! Your blog couldn't have been better timed as I sit trying to finish my book have had my "voice"go to sleep...wake up I say and be finished!