The Alchemy of Getting Published
by Gae Polisner
by Gae Polisner
What makes one writer successful in getting published and another not? In my experience, and especially in this difficult and ever-changing market, getting published requires a confluence of three major elements: Skill. Perseverance. And luck. And the perseverance and luck pretty much go hand in hand. I’ll explain why in a minute. With shiny examples and everything.
But first there’s the obvious piece: skill. In order to get published, you have to be a good writer. I know there are rare exceptions (*rolls eyes with you*), but the truth is, yes, you do. You have to be a good writer. Of course, being a “good writer” may, in some instances, mean being a great plotter or storyteller rather than the best wielder of words. In other instances, it may mean being a magnificent weaver of words over being a crafter of the most page-turning of stories. But, at a minimum, you have to manage either/or. Brilliant writing or great storytelling. And, in the best instances, both. But, no question, there has to be skill.
Yay! I’m skilled! Shouldn’t I have an agent or a book deal? In a perfect world, yes. But I know first-hand the book world is far from perfect.
After five years (*perseverance alert!*) of querying my first novel to agents, I finally snagged a wonderful NYC literary agent who fell in love with my writing and the manuscript and, after working on revisions with me, shopped it around to about twenty major NYC publishers. Lots of editorial praise followed, and the manuscript went up to the executive board of at least three major houses (meaning at least a few of the in-house editors and/or editorial assistants liked it enough to pass it up higher). Yet, no deal.
I wrote a second manuscript. (*perseverance alert!*) For reasons outside my control, I needed to change literary agencies. That second manuscript caught the attention of a new agent who emailed me in the middle of the night claiming she was kept awake (in a good way) by my story and my words. She took me on and that manuscript followed much the same path as the first one. Only with more editorial praise. And more passes up on to “high.” Um, still no deal.
Well, maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are... Okay, fine. Maybe you’re right. Let’s take my friend Christine instead. Oh man, can that woman write! Ooh, and tell a magnificent story! Some objective proof? Well, as was my first, her manuscript was a Top Semifinalist in the first-ever Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest (now in it’s fourth year). So intrigued was I by the excerpt I had seen, I asked her if I could read the whole thing. I instantly fell in love. The story is contemporary women’s fiction with a real literary bent, a generational love story that takes place in Nazi Germany and revels in the architecture (not to mention the weaving trade) of the time. About thirty pages in, I knew it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever read. By the end, I hadn’t changed my mind, except about just how very beautiful and brilliant it was! Were there flaws, things to be tweaked? Sure, but barely. Excited, I had Christine send the manuscript off to my agent. I mean, if my agent liked my writing, she would love this, right? And she’d be indebted to me forever for sending her the next great thing.
Three weeks later, my agent turned her down. No go, she said. The voice didn’t resonate with her. But why not? Why not? WHY NOT?
I don’t think I am wrong about Christine’s book. And I don’t think my agent is wrong about mine. At least not my second manuscript. So here’s where I think that luck must come in, if the alchemy of a book deal is to work. Though, to be clear, luck will only arise when skill and perseverance lead us there.
But what kind of luck? The luck that lands our manuscript in the RIGHT hands, be it agent or editor. The hands (and reading eyes) that will connect with our characters, our story, our voice. Sometimes this happens fast, sometimes it takes a painfully long time (*persev. . . * okay, fine, you know what I mean), and sometimes, frustratingly, it never occurs.
For example, with my first two manuscripts, there were clearly important readers in love. Just not the ultimate readers. Same with my friend Christine’s book so far. But how can this happen? Good is good. Skill is skill. Shouldn’t any intelligent, perceptive set of hands be the right ones? To answer this, all you have to do is look up reviews for any great classic on Amazon. Take The Great Gatsby, for instance:
This from one of the 700+ 5-star reviews:
“Having reread this book for the first time in 20 years, I can confirm that there's a reason that it's considered one of the very best American novels.”
And, this from one of the 93 1-star reviews:
“I just wish that someone would have warned me before I read it. I read constantly and have been for 25 years or so and this was one of the least engaging books I've ever read.”
Look, I personally think The Great Gatsby is a marvel of word and story, but not all of those 93 readers who don’t are idiots. Art is subjective. Novels are art. Subjectivity is where the luck comes into play. You need to get your manuscript into the RIGHT hands, the hands of an agent or editor who loves your particular story and voice. And, if your manuscript falls anything short of The Great Gatsby, your work is cut out for you because your ratio of love to hate may be far less than 88.3%.
Which is where perseverance comes back into things. Ah, the alchemy of skill, luck and perseverance. And trust me, even published authors experience this need to have this continued alchemy at play. At least in these times where there really is no such thing as a “house author” anymore, but rather each manuscript gets scrutinized for its individual marketability, and how many units will sell.
The good news is that the alchemy of skill, perseverance and luck still works. I’m living proof. You just have to keep writing and hang in there.