Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Nobody Knows Nothing

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 29, 2014

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m not a big believer in feedback. By that I mean “notes,” “critiques,” “comments” about one’s work from writing groups or editors or friends or just about any other source.

Goldman

With apologies to William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy," "All The President's Men") who famously said of the movie biz: "Nobody Knows Anything."

It’s been my experience that very, very few people can read something and tell you accurately what’s wrong with it. And practically nobody can tell you how to fix it.

Feedback from anyone else will just screw you up.

Here, unexpurgated, is an e-mail exchange between me and a hard-working young writer named Michael G. S. Hesse. Michael has given me his permission to post this. Please feel free to jump in to the Comments section either with encouragement for Michael or brickbats for me for applying too much “tough love.”

Dear Mr. Pressfield,

When do you know if you need to return to a project and polish or start anew?

I get up at 4:30 am. Every morning. I get up, brew coffee, and fix a nibble for my wife before she scurries off to work. By 5:30 I’m awake enough to write. I write from 5:30 to 7:30 every morning before leaving for my paying job. I do this seven days a week. On weekends I sleep till 5:30 and then write until noon. I’ve been doing this ever since my ‘turning pro’ moment two years ago.

During this time I’ve written a 206,000 word fantasy novel. I sent it out to ten agents. One asked for a partial and then the full. A week later I received an encouraging rejection letter suggesting that she felt the novel hadn’t been edited down enough. She suggested going back and cutting it down to the 150K range. I thought about her comments, agreed with them and got to work. Two months later I’d trimmed the novel to 146K. It was much the better for the effort.

I contacted the agent and asked if she’d be interested in re-reading it. She agreed. I sent it off. Several weeks later I received another rejection letter. This time she stated that she’d read it all the way through twice, she liked it very much. She said the novel was engaging and said that she loved the voice, but it was too heavy. She felt suffocated by the narrator. She felt it needed polishing, but she couldn’t put her finger on what was missing. She also suggested that I send it out to a number of other agents and get their feedback before doing any more work.

Eighteen other agents have since rejected the novel based on the query. Two suggested that 150K was too long and they’d be interested in looking at it if I were willing to cut another 25K. Both of these agents expressed an interest in seeing future projects.

When do you know it’s time to shelve a project or get back into the trenches? I’ve spent two years with these characters. I’ve learned a great deal about them and their motivations. I can see places where the prose could be tightened, but I’m also itching to begin new projects. Where is Resistance rearing its ugly head? Is it telling me that I’m tired of working on the same project for so long and that I should be writing something new or is it the desire to write something new that is keeping me from polishing my manuscript to the point where it is deemed publishable?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Michael G. S. Hesse

I recognize that Michael is asking, “Have I spent too long on this project? Is it going nowhere? Should I move on?”

But the bigger issue to me in Michael’s note is evidence of the pernicious temptation to rely upon the opinions of others. On the one hand, one must appreciate the effort that agent put into reading and responding to Michael’s long, long manuscript. Who does that nowadays? On the other hand, did she choose to represent it? All she did was hammer Michael’s spirit and lead him into a labyrinth of self-questioning and self-doubt.

Michael, I commend you on your work ethic and salute you for finishing your book and getting it into the hands of so many agents. This is no small thing and I congratulate you. Here is what I suggest to you as goals for this year:

1. Make every effort to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinion of your work. Not one person in a hundred is qualified to give feedback to a writer, including me. You will drive yourself crazy listening to people’s (particularly agent’s) comments that they “loved the voice but felt it was too heavy.” Break that habit.

2. Make every effort to learn to evaluate your work yourself. If you can, find ONE PERSON you trust for feedback. A friend, your wife, whatever. If you have to pay them to read your stuff, pay them. Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.

3. Put this project aside for a while. Move on to something fresh. Meanwhile keep getting it out there to agents and anyone you can. Just don’t listen to their feedback. If they don’t tell you, “I love it, I want to represent it,” don’t listen to another word.

4. After a minimum of three months, read your novel again with fresh eyes. Evaluate it yourself. Make decisions from there.

5. Do NOT write me back with another “ask.” DO NOT ask me to read your novel. I don’t have time.

It may help you with perspective to consider the following:

1. I had my dear friend of twenty years (and a superb editor) Shawn Coyne read a manuscript of mine a couple of years ago for feedback. I paid him $40,000. That’s what professional-level feedback is worth. Keep that in mind when you ask for help for free—or when you get it for free.

2. On the shelves of my office are 21 screenplays (each of which took me six months to write) and three novels (two years each) that never sold. It is VERY HARD to find a buyer or an agent. This is the reality of the writer’s life.

3. A friend who opened her own literary agency spent an entire year before she opened her doors reading screenplays and books, seeking writers whose work she believed she could take out into the marketplace and sell. How many did she find in those twelve months? Zero. (She finally found two, a team, and built a successful business around them.)

I have heard stories of writers submitting their work hundreds and hundreds of times and not getting a single read.

It’s hard, that’s all there is to it.

All that being said, Michael, your work ethic is tremendous and you clearly have the passion to break through and succeed. I wish you all the best as you acquire the thick skin a writer needs and you continually raise your level of professionalism and your understanding of the realities of the business.

P.S. A good book to read: “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman.

Good luck and keep up the great work ethic!

Steven Pressfield

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

62 Responses to “Nobody Knows Nothing”

  1. Mary Doyle
    January 29, 2014 at 5:07 am

    I so appreciate this post and will save it for future reference. The straight-forward, boundaried advice you offered Michael will benefit those of us who follow this blog. I have to confess to being dense on one point though: if we refrain from seeking and following feedback to avoid getting waylaid the way Michael did, why would we even ask one person we trust for feedback? Unless our best friend/spouse, etc. is someone who possesses the skill of a Shawn Coyne, what would we hope to elicit from such feedback? Maybe I’m missing something obvious here. As always, thanks!

    • January 29, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Mary Doyle, he did say “Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.” And by the way, did you know that Stephen King’s wife is the one who rescued the “Carrie” manuscript out of the trash, and encouraged him to pursue it? He had thrown it away. Our higher power will use whoever is closest to us to communicate with us, if we miss our own intuitive messages. Steven, your Writing Wednesdays blog, e-mails, and other free advice you offer us is so appreciated. Thank you for sharing your hard-earned knowledge of the business and the craft.

  2. January 29, 2014 at 5:13 am

    I’d bet, without knowing anything about Michael’s novel, that the “heavy, suffocating” voice of the novel is one of the things that makes it good and sets it apart. So frustrating! Editors can hold out the possibility of publication, if only you will change what makes the book different and unique. Then you are tempted to try to publish and kill your own voice. A very deadening experience. No wonder Michael is hung up!

    • January 29, 2014 at 9:46 am

      I agree with Susanna Plotnich! Anne Rice mentioned in conversation that you don’t sell your book to those who want to change it, but to those who love it. And I suggest that this writer self publish. It’s you and your muse. And what ever friends you would like to share it with. But be strong! This is your book!
      See Nancy McKibben’s response. Good Luck!
      Jacqueline Stigman

    • January 29, 2014 at 11:59 am

      That is why I self published, I own the rights to all my work and it is my voice period. I agree that Michael’s book is probably unique, and today’s editors have no idea what to do with it. If it doesn’t fit the cookie cutter…next!

  3. January 29, 2014 at 5:14 am

    Mike -

    Great job! Your focus and productivity put me to shame.

    Steve -

    A great post, but I actually think there can be value in the input of others. The key is knowing how hard it is to find good input, and what importance to assign it. I agree that it’s dangerous to let every little thing that outsiders say about your work–be they potential agents, editors, or even just your spouse or a close friend–alter your vision or curb your enthusiasm, but I think for every writer there does come a moment where you have to beta test what you’ve done, and at least weigh the feedback you get against the knowledge in your head and the hunger in your heart. The best advice I’ve seen for keeping feedback in its proper place probably came from Neil Gaiman (I’m paraphrasing here): if some says there’s a problem, they’re probably right; if they try to suggest how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.

    My own approach is this: I have three trusted readers (two are fellow writers, one is just a super-smart friend whose reading tastes conform to my idea of my ideal reader). I let all three read whatever I’ve done, and I let them offer feedback freely. If two or more of them seem to have an issue with the same element–a character, a turn in the plot, a problem of tone–then I assume they may be on to something and I try to find my own solution to the problem. If each reader has different issues–then maybe those issues aren’t really issues, and I carry on without changing a thing.

    The key, I think, is just remembering that YOU are the writer. Ultimately, your name is on the work and you’re the first, last and best authority on what it needs. Feedback can be helpful, but it need not be gospel.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Becky Blankenship
      January 29, 2014 at 8:27 am

      Dale,
      I love this and I agree. I have three trusted friends who read everything I write. They like me. They get me. They make my writing better. Setting aside a project for 6-8 weeks is the best advice. Fresh eyes make me a better editor of my stuff. Thanks for posting
      Becks

    • January 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Dale, this is a great comment. I think your method is excellent. The trick is to find three people who are GOOD at this.

      The other side of the equation is consideration for others. It is a helluva favor to ask of someone to read your book or whatever. And to read it and think hard and offer hard-earned experience, wisdom, and insight? Wow. That’s worth a lot. I think long and hard before I ask my friends to read anything.

  4. January 29, 2014 at 6:10 am

    I wish I’d gotten that email from you 35 years ago, Steve.

    I’d easily be 25 years ahead of where I am now, where I’ve learned not to listen to another soul about my art. I’ve had the blessing of some marvelously talented people listening to my music, especially, and the truth is, nobody knows nothin.

    It’s my art. I’d love professional help polishing it to be the best version of what I meant, but not for one instant do I want anyone to suggest that maybe I didn’t know what I meant.

    Oh; Michael? Astonishing level of determination. Astonishing. Publish that thing yourself. Compared to 99.9% of independently published books, it will be a work of high professionalism. Find your fans, keep your work ethic right where it is, and in a few years, your wife can stay home and fix YOUR breakfast if that’s what y’all want to happen.

  5. January 29, 2014 at 6:16 am

    $40,000 to READ your manuscript? Wow. I may have just decided to make a career change. ( ;

    • January 29, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      I know, I know, Michael. It sounds insane, but if you had to get a valve in your heart replaced, would you go to your neighbor Charlie who’s good with a screwdriver? As worthless as I believe most “feedback” is (and it is), GREAT editing from a top pro is that valuable. For this particular book, it was the difference between the book succeeding or failing. At $40K, I got a bargain.

      It’s like the story of the rich American who chanced to see Picasso at a cafe in Paris and went up to his table. “Mr. Picasso, please just doodle something on a napkin and I’ll pay whatever you ask.” So Mr. P did. He told the Yank, “That’ll be forty thousand dollars.” “What?! But it only took you ten seconds to do that drawing!” “No, my friend,” said Picasso, “It took me forty years.”

      • Sonja
        January 29, 2014 at 3:47 pm

        I totally agree. Asking someone to read your WIP is huge!

        That Picasso story is a gem. : )

      • January 29, 2014 at 4:53 pm

        Ok – very well explained – and much appreciated. And having read several of Shawn’s postings here, not hard to believe how valuable his guidance would be. But if I’m ever forced into being a waiter again – sure hope you’re at one of my tables. ( ;
        ciao,
        mj

  6. January 29, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Michael-

    I admire your dedication and commitment to your craft. You must take Steven’s advice and stop listening to others when it comes to the content or tone of your work. I highly doubt that any one of those agents read your whole book so who are they to judge your work.

    The only people you should pay any attention to are the people who pay you for your work. Joel’s comment is spot on. Publish the thing yourself and build your fan base. I’m willing to bet that if you continue your level of dedication, that you will find people who will love what you are doing and pay you for it.

    Steven-

    Excellent advice. Sometimes we all need a little tough love to remind us that we need to look within to solve our own problems.

  7. January 29, 2014 at 6:31 am

    The odds seems so remote.
    How about discussing the “It’s not how well you write, but who you know” aspect theory. Not that I write well. I just suspect the old ‘not what you know, but who you know transposes well in all businesses. I see some pretty shitty movies (scripts) when I stream through the Netflix library. I gotta wonder why that script got made into a film. Is that crap really what majorities of people want to see?
    Hence, a money maker? Who makes these decisions? Who do I have to… kiss up to?

  8. skip
    January 29, 2014 at 6:32 am

    maybe you might share the 3 novels (with 6 years of time and effort) that didnt sell !?! i for one would love to read them!

  9. January 29, 2014 at 6:36 am

    Most agents are vermin who should be exterminated. Sorry for the harshness, but it’s true. I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of them over the years. I’m a multi-pubbed author. Now that I’ve gone indie, I hope to never return to the unmitigated hell of heritage publishing.

    My question is this: why do agents–damn near across the board–make such ridiculous claims? “I couldn’t put it down.” “I read the whole thing twice.” Then, ultimately, nothing. I realize that when your ass is on the line, it is all too tempting to look for excuses NOT to rep something, but I hardly think those are the habits of top-grossing agents.

    My prediction? Agents will soon be obsolete. The damage they have done to young and not-so-young authors is far greater than any nebulous good they might have perpetrated over the years.

  10. January 29, 2014 at 6:46 am

    When I read No.5 of the suggestions, I thought/felt OH BOY – How many times I have done such a “not to do”. I did this just recently doing Power Point Presentations for New Earth. With all of the 1-5 suggestions doesn’t necessarily apply to just writing a book. WAKE UP call once again. Thank You. Finally laying [to rest] any outcome of a business success and cash from the Presentations – I did come to the revelation within myself – I did it for myself and learned so much. There have been a lot of views; BUT has anyone really read them? I Do Not Know. BUT, you know what, I am OK with whatever the outcome. I did the work with every ounce of my being.

  11. January 29, 2014 at 6:47 am

    I appreciate this so much. Anne Rice said something similar in that you should not change a single word unless someone actually tells you they want to publish the book or represent you. Then you can see your way clear to making changes, but not before. I’ve bookmarked this and will read it whenever I need to.

  12. elizabethe
    January 29, 2014 at 6:53 am

    I got some helpful advice once about feedback that I found useful. You should ask readers to read your writing and make a note of only two things. 1. where they got bored and 2. where they got confused. They should in no case try to tell you why they thought it was confusing or boring or what they “think” about anything else.

    Steve’s advice to not get feedback is the most liberating thing I’ve ever heard as a writer.

  13. Maureen
    January 29, 2014 at 6:54 am

    There are countless stories of works bring rejected over and over and over, only to become #1 best sellers when finally published. Steve gives good advice; put this one aside for awhilie and work on something new.

  14. January 29, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Well, I don’t think nineteen agents are enough. I’d query at least a hundred before giving up–and all the while I’d be working on something new.

  15. January 29, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Or setting the novel aside, rather.

  16. Michael G S Hesse
    January 29, 2014 at 7:09 am

    Wow, I’m very pleased with all the comments so far. I’m at work now and typing on my phone so please excuse any typos.

    As far as self-publishing is concerned I’m ambivalent. I honestly don’t want to do the necessary social networking to make the book successful in that manner. I need to be writing. For the same reason, when my father suggested that I set up a website I declined. I felt that was putting the cart before the horse. When I land an agent or publisher I’ll devote the time to do those things correctly.

    I’ve started work on a second project and once the first draft is complete I’ll reread the last manuscript and decide if it needs further tweaking. And yes, I will keep sending the manuscript out.

    Thanks for all the comments!

    • Patrick
      January 29, 2014 at 5:17 pm

      Michael, take another long hard look at self-publishing. For one thing, you’ll make a lot more money in the long run. The deal that traditional publishers give writers favors the publisher, not the writer. If you get a nice advance and the book doesn’t do well you could end up owing the publisher money.

      I’ve done a lot of research on self publishing and it was a real eye opener. The way I see it, there is no advantage for the writer going with a traditional publisher. Validation, maybe, if you feel you need that, but the biggest validation is readers.

      And even with a traditional deal, you will have to self promote. People aren’t going to magically find your book and there’s no promise the publishers is going to do a good job, if any, of promoting it.

      Check out J. A Konrath’s site. (among others)(jakonrath.blogspot.com) It will provide you with a real education on the publishing industry.

      I would encourage you to give the book a final proof-read/polish, or pay someone else to do it, and self pub.

    • Steven
      January 31, 2014 at 6:56 am

      In this age of writing, you can’t be ambivalent. I know plenty of bloggers who have created huge empires of followers that as soon as they release a new book it’s #1 immediately on Amazon. They can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And none use a traditional publisher. Your ambivalence will be your downfall. Even if a publisher picks up your book, it doesn’t mean anyone will read it. And that’s kind of the point, right?

  17. Currer Bell
    January 29, 2014 at 7:17 am

    First a foremost, completing a novel and sending it out to an agent is a HUGE milestone. So congratulations.

    Have you considered self publishing?

    As for “notes,” I take what rings true to me, and discard what does not. We all know in our heart of hearts, if something isn’t quite working, so if I receive notes on something I know isn’t working I follow them. Or if I hear the same note repeatedly, then I know I need to work on it. Otherwise, opinions are like …

    I have been working on a film project since 2009, it went from a screenplay, to a documentary which it aired on PBS. I am now working a play based on the film project.

    My point is if you are still passionate about the project stick with it, even if that passion wanes a bit. It is like a marriage, you fall in love, you fall out of love, then you fall back in love again.

    And yes! Start another project! It will help.

    Good luck to you.

  18. Currer Bell
    January 29, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Oh one more thing …

    “For the same reason, when my father suggested that I set up a website I declined. I felt that was putting the cart before the horse. When I land an agent or publisher I’ll devote the time to do those things correctly.”

    Honestly, you will have to start a website, social media, and more than likely self-publish BEFORE an agent or manager will even talk to you.

  19. January 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

    yes, we are lone wolves, aren’t we? :-) i did that, too, arduously searching for feedback, but now, i just stick to writing. if i love, then that’s final. no one can tell me otherwise. and yes again, distancing ourselves from our manuscripts is the best advice. that’s why it takes long to put a novel out there: it’s not the writing process as it is the editing. you can’t edit it when it is still fresh. when you forget about it, about its characters, plot etc., that’s when you can have an objective opinion about your own work.

  20. January 29, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Every writer needs an editor. The editorial functions may be split among several people, but I’d guess no more five, and that includes line-editing. Thus, a beta reader may be the first stage editor. The next stage should be the for-publication-content editor.

    Every writer needs an audience. Sometimes it’s an audience of one, but most of us want multiple readers – in the thousands, at least. If the book is “audience-worthy” (borrowing a friend’s phrase – and only the writer and editor (see above) can be sure of that – then how the work finds its audience, or the audience finds the work (author), is irrelevant. The agent-publisher route, the slush pile-publisher route, the self – publisher route are all equal once the book is in the hands or iPads of its readers.

    (Sort of like a college degree: the quality of some is greater, the grades of some graduates are higher, but the real question is: did you graduate and what are you doing with the learning?)

    So, yes, Steve. And yes to all the previous, insightful comments. Or rather, yes, to all the previous comments, which were insightful. And does not imply that subsequent comments won’t be. (See? Editor!)

  21. Currer Bell
    January 29, 2014 at 7:44 am

    One more thing as far as notes go. Yes, hiring a professional editor, that you trust, can be extremely helpful.

    I am a filmmaker, so once I get into production and I am working with a director and producer, then I take notes. Film is extremely collaborative. Currently, I am working on a stage play, the executive producer and I had a two hour meeting going through notes. Most of them were spot on, there were a few that were not. So it is a delicate balance. Writing for $ vs writing for yourself.

  22. January 29, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Dear Michael via Steven -

    You have a manuscript that people like. Why not self-publish, instead of beating your head against the wall of agency? Self-publishing doesn’t rule out later traditional publishing at all, and you can make some money in the meantime. You could do ebook only, which takes a small investment of time in learning to format, but little money (the main investment is in a professionally designed cover.)

    As for the web site/self-promotion misgivings – you will have to do it sooner or later. Even if you are published traditionally, you will always be your own best PR person. Legacy publishers are notorious for letting you promote yourself.

    I suggest you look at Joe Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Self-Publishing (http://www.joekonrath.blogspot.com) for a different take on the subject.

    And there’s also Kickstarter. 50% of their projects are funded, so if you do it right, you could potentially publish in hardcover, too.

    Best wishes,

    Nancy McKibben

  23. January 29, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Michael – Thanks for letting Steven share your letter. Keep up the good work and I agree with others. Self-publish it.

    Steven – Great ideas about feedback. I find that self doubt creeps in all the time when I’m creating (yes, resistance). I also know that if I ask someone for free feedback, all I want to hear is, “THIS IS BRILLIANT!” What I tend get is, “It’s good. Did you know you mis-spelled a word on page 7?” Plus, if I am asking for feedback, I need re-work it myself to gain confidence in my stroke.

  24. January 29, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Michael, congratulations. You’ve demonstrated great determination, self-discipline and character – all traits every great writer must possess. Steve is right about the pitfalls of feedback. Personally I have a very small circle of fellow writers I trust for that sort of thing. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to set the book aside for at least 6-8 weeks, and work on a completely different project. Blogs, short stories, a manifesto about evil editors and agents or whatever. Then come back to the book with fresh eyes and do the “final” re-write. Then send it out to the universe – it will get accepted or it won’t – and begin the next book. -RG

  25. January 29, 2014 at 8:30 am

    This is wonderful advice all the way around, Mr. Pressfield. Like many, many writers, I am in similar shoes as Michael, and I appreciate your level-headed advice more than I can express. Your THE WAR OF ART is my favorite writing book. Thank you for the time you take to help others along in their creative processes and journeys. It means so much.

  26. January 29, 2014 at 8:32 am

    How did you know I finished a story yesterday and was planning to ask a friend for a read and an opinion before I sent it on it’s merry way? I will just keep it to myself and let the inner voices be damned! :)

  27. Randy
    January 29, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Michael: Seems to me the 206,000 word original version is the story you wanted to tell. You could polish that up and divide it into a trilogy of 65,000-70,000 words each.

    I don’t know any Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans that complain about the lengthy novels of Robert Jordan or Frank Herbert. In fact, that is WHY they like them.

    Fans also loved Firefly. And the network executives canned it because the “numbers” weren’t there.

    Trust your gut. You’ll come out ahead in the long run.

    • Grace
      January 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      Agreed! Why sell one book when you can sell a series (and retain the production rights)?!

      So many self-publishing success stories…and marketing and self-promotion are part of the mix no matter what or who backs your material. There are many arguments now for putting the marketing cart before the horse…”if you build it, they will come”…to YOU!

      As Dana White says, never leave it in the hands of the judges!

  28. January 29, 2014 at 9:02 am

    I would wait a few months and come back to it. If the story stands on it’s own, then self publish. Traditional publishing is simply not worth it for the majority of writers.

  29. January 29, 2014 at 9:03 am

    i’m a songwriter. I doubt Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger r.i.p ever asked for feedback and they all put out a lot of crap. I only ask two things with my songs. Did I piss you off and/or bring a tear to your eye. If not then I’ve failed. next.

  30. Sonja
    January 29, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Wow! This was great. Thank you Steven!

    I’ve bookmarked a site called edit-my-novel.com that I saw in a writer’s magazine. It’s a former author turned agent, and I’ve heard others say good things about her.

    I plan on using it when I’m ready. The fees range from a couple hundred to a thousand, but worth it, I think, if you are serious about your craft long-term.

    Most of us don’t have the enviable relationship that Steven and Shawn do, and as I continue in my journey, I hope I can find someone like that too.

    Kudos to your dedication, Michael! I feel you’ve taught us all a little bit about beating down Resistance.

  31. January 29, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Dear Michael (via Steve),

    You mentioned that you were concerned about “putting the cart before the horse. Truth is, there’s a new horse pulling the cart! It’s called “The Connection Revolution!”

    There’s a great article in the current KDP newsletter (Kindle Direct Publishing), that speaks directly to this conversation and your situation. The article was written by a new novel writer named Keith Houghton, who candidly shares his transition from old-world publishing to new world publishing, and how he resisted social networking, launching a website and building a tribe for years.

    In the article Keith says, he was banging on publishers’ doors for 30 years, and like most aspiring authors, thought of “self-publishing” as a cottage industry. He said his feet were planted firmly in the traditional agent-to-publisher route. Naively, he believed that if his writing was good enough then it would sell. What he didn’t gamble on were the odds of traditional publishing being so stacked against him.
    He went on to say, “The thought of exposing my work to public scrutiny was scary. Worse than that, the fear of not selling a single book was a reality check. However, I finally bit the bullet and self-published my first crime thriller “Killing Hope” in November 2011. As it turned out, it was the best career decision I ever made.”

    Kieth said that within two months, “Killing Hope” had hit the Top 20 in the U.S. Kindle Store and reached the #1 spot in its categories internationally. Sales were exceeding all of his expectations (a quarter of a million downloads worldwide, 100,000 of which were actually paid sales!) Better yet, he was getting plenty of reader feedback and using it to shape his future books. He added, “I was kicking myself for not taking the plunge sooner!”

    For writers like Kieth, it is a win-win all-round. He’s in complete control of his writing career. What’s more, he get’s the kind of royalty rate unseen in the rest of the publishing world. Keith said, “Perhaps the best thing for me is the absence of literary snobbery. Anyone with a story can publish it and have people on the other side of the planet reading it the next day. Your only judge is your readership, and that’s the way it should be.”

    Hope this helps,
    J. Michael Dolan

  32. TriciaA
    January 29, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Michael, thanks for letting Steven share your problem.

    I’m currently taking a class in screenwriting (though I’m a novelist) because I believe that the instructor’s approach is fresh and to the point.

    The point being clarity. Is what is in the writer’s head actually on the page?

    There is no critiquing, per se. Only testing for clarity. We write short scenes and sequences and then evaluate for how clear the conflict is, or the question is (depending on the point of the exercise).

    The others in the class are asked if the conflict is clear — and the answer is either yes or no. If yes, we write out what we see the conflict as being. AND THAT’S ALL. No re-writing someone else’s work. No offering suggestions of different tacks. No enforcement of group-think.

    If the conflict or question or whatever is not clear, then it’s the writer’s job to go back to work and make it clear.

    I’m loving this approach. There’s no interference with MY work, while at the same time I’m seeing whether what I’ve written is what I meant to write, what I believed I had written. If not, then back to work.

    I see studying how to get better as being part of a writer’s work. In my case, I may start another book, but after I write* I will often later in the day do some of what Cal Newport calls Hard Focus work where I try to break down why something that works for me works.

    Keep moving forward. Often non-writers can tell you where there is a problem, but will have NO IDEA how to fix it. For instance, sometimes it’s because you didn’t set something up three chapters earlier, but a non-writer and many writers will not be able to figure that out.

    A writer writes. But a writer also eschews magical thinking and does the hard work of getting better, too.

    (All imo, of course. YMMV.)

    _____

    * lest I sound angelic here, I admit that this is my optimal day and when I am able to write and study, it’s wonderful. Hard, exhausting… but utterly splendid, too.

  33. January 29, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Michael Dolan
    Your post about Keith’s all-round win-win might help Michael G S Hesse see the light about self-publishing.

    Anyway,considering that he has received so many insightful comments he must be thanking his lucky stars that he was inspired to write to Steve.

    Fran

  34. January 29, 2014 at 11:56 am

    That was a great post by Steve, well as all are for us writers. I completely agree, I have found just between my editor and I, we can get my books in very good order without any other input. I tried the get everyone to read it and give me feedback and it was a disaster. Thankfully with Steve P. and Gary Taubes assistance I decided to forgo the traditional publishing route and have self published my materials. Now people are starting to come to me to publish their books. I will be publishing my first book outside my own in the next couple of months.

    Self publishing is brutal because you have to get really good at marketing yourself, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  35. Azure
    January 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I agree with Steven re: feedback. I am a visual artist, and going through art school was a soul-crushing experience. By the end, I hadn’t a shred of confidence left. Whenever I do projects all on my own, I am very pleased with and proud of how they turn out. But when I was critiqued to death in school, the act of constantly pulling me further and further away from my original vision resulted in embarrassingly horrible work.

    As a side note, how incredibly sweet that you make breakfast for your wife at 4:30am! *swoon*

  36. January 29, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    As both a musician/composer and a writer, I never ask people for their opinions about my work. The only person I allowed into that inner sanctum was my editor when I wrote my autobiography, and she made some excellent suggestions without trying to change the way I write. I’ve gotten wonderful feedback for my book (including 29 5-star reviews on Amazon so far), and I’m convinced one of the reasons is that I didn’t ask for people’s opinions while I was writing it. I’m self-published, by the way, and would definitely recommend this route to Michael.

  37. Michael G S Hesse
    January 29, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I’m overwhelmed by all the insightful comments, but I never meant for this to become a discussion about the pros and cons of self publishing. I currently feel that to be successful as a self published author I would need to spend a significant amount of time in marketing and self promotion.

    At this point I feel that my time is better served by putting words on paper. I have a twitter account, but I rarely use it. Why? Because tweeting isn’t writing. I already walk a tightrope balancing my time between pounding the keyboard, working my day job, and spending time with my new wife and my four children. I don’t feel that I could market effectively and still maintain the level of commitment required to do all of the above.

    There may come a time when that changes, but for now I’ll keep writing and editing, working and loving to the best of my ability.

    And yes, I feel quite honored by Steve’s response to my email and his decision to include it in “Writing Wednesdays”. I appreciate all of the comments and well-wishes. Thank you one and all.

    -M

    • Sharon
      January 30, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      “The amateur tweets. The pro works.”

      “The amateur prizes shallowness and shuns depth. The culture of Twitter and Facebook is paradise for the amateur.”

      “The amateur seeks permission.”

      ~ Steven Pressfield

  38. January 29, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Great post about finding your own voice and learning to trust yourself.
    Steve has a point (as usual). I have submitted various pitches and screenplays…the feedback has ranged from great (producers for NBC and CBS) to strange (weekend warrior screenwriters, a former agent from one of the Big 5 agencies). Trust who you ask for feedback and whatever they say see if it works.

  39. January 29, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Michael, I loved reading the description of how you have written your book. And managed to make breakfast for your wife too!
    Now I will have to sit here and wait for you to publish it so I can read it. And I don’t usually read fantasy novels.
    But your story is so compelling that this time I would!
    Best of luck to you!

  40. Alexis
    January 29, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you, Steve. I love this blog. Steven Pressfield Online and Brain Pickings Weekly are the only writers blogs I read. For me, today’s gem was revealing flat out what you paid Shawn Coyne! My, oh my, but people are so squirrely about simply saying what a thing costs. I believe it does a disservice to everyone to be silent on this matter. It does a disservice to the consumer because her expectations are unrealistic and it does a disservice to the editor because so many editors undercut themselves, making it difficult for those who don’t.

    Bravo, Michael! I deeply admire your work ethic and am in awe of your 206,000 word manuscript. I also heard you, as it were, regarding self publishing. You made it very clear and I just wanted to honor that! I have NO advise for you!

  41. James Page
    January 30, 2014 at 2:28 am

    Great advice and any number of good tips and pointers in the article itself and in the comments.
    I have self published two books through KDP and have stumbled across a formula that works for me. Similar to a comment by Dale Lucas, I have two trusted friends who read my draft manuscripts.
    The first one they loved and I published it in record time.
    When they were both critical of the second, citing the same concerns, I found an editor and she too said the same thing, that I had too much detail for what was essentially a fast paced action thriller. The information wasn’t necessarily incorrect but was inappropriate for the genre and slowed the pace.
    A third book has been finished and sent to my trusted readers, one has come back already, again loving it but with some minor comments.
    The three books above are part of a series while a fourth book on an entirely different theme is nearing completion.

  42. January 30, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    If Michael had been active in social publishing he could have had advance feedback as he was writing from beta readers. I’m surprised more authors don’t use Scribd, Leanpub, Wattpad, their own Facebook author pages, websites, and other methods to get some preliminary writing out there, or some stories, to see what actual readers are responding to. Publishing drafts, excerpts, and stories also serves to build platform, which is something agents/publishers just love for you to have before they take a chance on you. And, who knows, you may end up with enough platform to just say no and self-publish.

    • Sharon
      January 30, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      Some of us write for ourselves, taking dictation from the divine muse, rather than what marketeers hunger for. As Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize speech, “To create out of the human spirit that which did not exist before.”

      Some express themselves by catering to mass appeal and that’s their way; others are into creating anew in that lonely place, marching to a different drummer. Thoreau, Shakespeare, Joyce, King, Homer, et al.

  43. January 30, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    I would never pay anyone $40,000 to read a manuscript, even they are not infallible because if they were we would know how to make a best-seller happen… and who has the secret to that? The promoters perhaps, not editors.

  44. January 30, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Michael,

    I’m going to talk about something different than anybody else here, and that’s your “Going Pro” moment. I thought I was going pro last week, and had committed myself to getting up at 4am every morning to write for two hours (my writing is for a completely different purpose – content marketing, but that’s another discussion).

    But I failed, and I went back to all my old habits.

    Can you please please please share your going pro moment with me? I’m getting to the point of desperation where I feel stuck at my day gig, and feel totally unable to put in the effort I need to work on my craft.

    Your insights are much appreciated!

    • Michael G S Hesse
      January 31, 2014 at 6:50 am

      I’d be happy to, but it’s too difficult to write properly on my phone while I’m at work right now. If you have a twitter account you can send me your email. Although I rarely use twitter, I’ll get a pop-up with your message. I’ll document what I went through this weekend after my ‘writing time’ and send to you when complete. My twitter is @p3n3mu3

      • January 31, 2014 at 3:52 pm

        Michael, that’s awesome. Tweeting you now! My Twitter is @flabastida by the way.

  45. Steven
    January 31, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Who even goes the traditional publishing route anymore? Fuck the Gatekeepers. Self-publish through Createspace. Problem. Solved.

  46. Basilis
    February 1, 2014 at 1:07 am

    I’m…”wrestling a huge alligator” these months and I usually try to spare sometime just to read the comments and posts, but not a minute for making comments.
    But this time…
    What a precise, practical question from Mr. Hesse!
    And what an answer!
    (Also great comments, from the other members of this … “Fight Resistance Club” !).
    I feel that, again, we have reached the same conclusion with so many other posts:
    We have to be a publishing house!
    To try to find an editor that you value his/her opinion. To try to improve our editing skills. To give to different people a part-all the book and ask their Feedback. To ignore 99,5% of their answer and think about that 0,5% that made us feel that something is wrong with our novel. {To search for really talented Illustrator (for children book e.t.c.). It’s so extremely important! To reject and be rejected! To create a good budget for the Illustration. Not to be satisfied with nothing less than the best approach of illustration – and, simultaneously, the one we also like. And this costs. The talented pro Illustrators have to make their leaving, also, right?}. To make a site-blog. To market with facebook, twitter, to distribute e-book with many ways already mentioned here by Callie, Shawn, Steve (and I’m sure that we all know the ways, but we are reluctant to give some time from our writing work to market the work. At least at the beginning…). And to find a way to print and distribute the printed work effectively (I really envy Americans because they have a HUGE advantage in this field).
    To find the money for a good professional cover, and a great pagination.
    E.t.c. e.t.c.!! It’s a big list of activities to lead our work on step further. But after some years of rejections, failures, bad luck (huge financial problems of my country for example!) there comes a time that you have found some people you can co-operate and form a team. Then the same question in this post will never be the same again in our minds…

  47. February 27, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    This video post Writing Wednesdays: Nobody Knows Nothing is in fact impressive, the sound feature and the picture feature of this tape post is in fact awesome.