What It Takes

What It Takes

It Ain’t Easy When You Get What You “Want”

By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 13, 2017

What’s it like when you get the call?  When you get the big deal and you’ve been ushered into Big Publishing’s Finishing School with a seven figure advance for your first book? Let’s head back to some material from www.storygrid.com and explore the reality of this dream come true state of being…

When contemplating a writing project, let just one question guide you:

What’s at stake?

Not just what’s at stake in the Story—if it’s not earth shaking, find another one to tell—but what’s at stake for you personally. If you could skip the project and forget about it the next day, it’s not one to devote years of your life to telling. Burning your creative days on something that’s not going to push you to the edge of madness is a waste of time.

You won’t get better.  You’ll sell yourself short. No matter how popular or how well praised the finished product is, you’ll know that you phoned it in.  So don’t do it.  Press yourself.

Listen to what your insides are telling you to avoid…that’s the voice of Resistance. And as Steve Pressfield points out, you need to drive headlong into that negative storm. Use it as a guide to tell you what to do next.

If you keep hearing from the chattering monkey inside your head that doing X project is a stupid idea…that no one will care…that you could make an ass out of yourself…that you need to focus on something more practical…and on and on… That’s the one you need to work on.

Today, any of us can write and publish a book. I can’t emphasize how much of a gift that is. You don’t need me to tell you that you’re worthy to get your ideas into the world. You just have to choose yourself, do the work, and to hell with what I think.

Those age old external constraints no longer exist. Barriers to enter publishing’s retail marketplace were torn down almost ten years ago. We can write our stuff, upload it to an eBook seller, print on demand company and even audio publishing companies and have our multi platform work for sale on Amazon.com, iTunes, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Ingram and on and on. And no one will tell us “no.”

We can’t decry I’m a genius, but no one will give me a chance anymore.

There are a million guides out there that will walk you through the process. It’s not more difficult than making a very good cake from scratch. It’s hard, but doable.

So why don’t we?

It is the internal constraints to writing our book (little discussed but more powerful than Vladimir Putin) that make us shudder and keep us on the sidelines.

Fear. Fear of criticism. Fear of failure. But mostly, the one we can all use to trump advice givers like me…Fear of poverty. Of putting in years of blood, sweat and tears and getting nothing in return.

Let’s be practical.

A fella needs to eat, doesn’t he? And if he’s married and has kids, he has to contribute to the family bank account. Even Maslow puts those necessities before personal self-actualization on his hierarchy of needs.

This is the humdinger Resistance throw down of them all. It shuts up anyone telling you to pursue something with no immediate or guaranteed payoff.

That’s nice, but how do I make my mortgage payments while I confront my internal demons and paint my masterpiece?

But what if you were guaranteed a return?

Then you’d do it, right? No sweat. Bring on the madness.

What if a publisher called you and said they’d agree to pay you 1.5 million dollars to write your book, no matter what? They’d sign a contract stating that even if not one person bought your book, you’d still get that 1.5 million. In fact they’d hand you $375,000 just for signing the contract. You know, as some seed money to get you started.

There would just be one catch.

They would have to read your book after you delivered it and determine whether it was “editorially acceptable,” which is code for whether or not they agree that it is worth that 1.5 million dollars.

I mean you didn’t think you could turn in a bunch of rubbish and expect 1.5 million dollars in return, right? Of course not.

And if they thought what you delivered did not live up to what you promised, well, you have to give them back the $375,000 they lent you to get your started.

No hard feelings. You tried, but didn’t quite make it. It happens.

And the kicker is that even if you disagreed with them and had great arguments to support your case, there is no outside third party—no certified editorial appraiser—who would be able to come in and “objectively” evaluate your manuscript. One man’s literary gold is another’s lead.

So because they are the one’s fronting the costs to create the thing, the publisher’s subjective opinion reigns. He who writes the check makes the rules. That’s the way it works rube.

This is why so many writers don’t exhale until they’ve officially had their manuscripts “accepted.” Until they are, Damocles’ sword hangs over them.

Malcolm Gladwell was in this precarious place back in 1998. We last left him as he stared down the mess of material on his desk—the stuff that he’d have to somehow piece together into a first draft of his book The Tipping Point.

Sitting with his morning coffee, you know these realities had to have run through his mind.

A confluence of events came together in such a way that the external barriers to being published were not just removed for him; they were put in his service.  This was back in the day when the only way into a bookstore (brick and mortar or online) was through the front door of a publisher.

He got the big deal. The seven-figure contract that we read about over and over again as if it is some sort of winning ticket. It’s not. It’s the biggest mind-fucker there is.

Especially for nonfiction writers who sell their work on proposal.

Here’s why:

Big money can lead you to do one of two things:

  1. Play it safe.

Again, most nonfiction writers sell their work on proposal.   A proposal is a thirty or more page document that walks an editor/publisher through a future work. It opens with a prologue or introduction that reads “as if” it were the future book itself. And then it outlines the intentions of the writer…why this project is important, why the writer wants to write it, why he or she is the perfect one to write it etc.

There is an art to creating an irresistible proposal. And a danger too.

If your proposal makes promises you cannot reasonably keep, you will panic when the time comes to write your first draft…if not before.

So what many writers do is to suggest that there could be great payoffs to what they propose, but they make sure not to go “too far.” They manage expectations of the editors and publishers who read their proposals and when the time comes to write their first drafts, they use the proposal as their fail-safe security blanket.

That is, they deliver what they’ve promised in the proposal, but not more. When they deliver their draft a year or so after it has been commissioned, they do not risk a reaction like “ummm, this is interesting, but it’s nothing like the proposal that we bought…”

Those words from an editor are the precursor to “so we’re going to have to cancel this contract…here is the address to send back your check for the signing advance.”

  1. Swing for the Fences

A big deal can also have the opposite effect. Instead of the nonfiction writer playing it safe, he may find himself tempted to go for broke…to invent a wild new idiom or dive into material that he is not fully conversant.

He doesn’t look at the work as a way to hone his particular genius, to push the edge of his skill set, instead, he decides that what he can do with what he’s done in the past is not enough. If he’s a journalist, he decides that he needs to emphasize his line-by-line writing. If he’s an accomplished stylist, he decides that he should do more “on the ground” interviewing or research. He abandons his particular craft and tries to learn a new one instantly.

In his darkest hour, he convinces himself that what he can deliver with what he has at his disposal (his craft) is not good enough. It is not worth seven figures. So he has to “reinvent” himself and find a way to be a writer worth the big bucks.

Sitting with his coffee all those years ago, Malcolm Gladwell must have weighed both of these options.

He chose a third option…He would play it safe and swing for the fences.

Posted in What It Takes

8 Responses to “It Ain’t Easy When You Get What You “Want””

  1. Christine W
    October 13, 2017 at 6:12 am

    You mean if they don’t like your book you have to give BACK your advance???

  2. Mary Doyle
    October 13, 2017 at 6:19 am

    I look forward to reading about Gladwell’s third option. This post is convincing evidence that traditional publishing is not a viable route for most writers anymore. Thanks for continuing to offer a look behind the curtain Shawn!

  3. October 13, 2017 at 6:30 am

    I’m guessing here. The third option is to both stay close to the proposal and dig deeper into developing skills that make it more than the proposal. Thanks for scaring the &$#% out of us!
    But seriously, this describes the life of the emerging artist. During that time of swinging out and building skills and evolving during the big squeeze, one must have a framework to fall back on. That sheet of paper with the beginning, middle, and end. That’s your lifeline.

  4. Julie Murphy
    October 13, 2017 at 7:00 am

    The story that won’t let us go —
    “…something that’s not going to push you to the edge of madness is a waste of time…”

    The reason we’re all so very thankful and grateful for these posts is because in our day to day, muggle world no one understands the struggle to birth The Story. How can they understand swinging for the fence when they’re playing in a different field?

    I just reread The Tipping Point. If Gladwell did it, I can do it too. With a little help from my friends who tell me the truth twice a week.

    Thanks, Shawn.

  5. Ms. Moretti
    October 13, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Thank you for being such a pro and clarifying the process for those of us willing to take the journey. It is fantastic that the doors have swung wide open for any and all of us, but the “internal constraints” issue will never change. We must walk through the doors, and fly through the windows ourselves.
    Keep it coming; I need to hear everything that you’ve got! Your words are straight to the heart of the matter, and it is because they have heart that I keep tuning in. Onward.

  6. October 13, 2017 at 9:38 am

    It’s been 4 years now since I decided to put the hammer to the glass, take the exit package, sign up for medicare, tap the 401K, and write full time. I still have not netted in total as many dollars as I used to pull down in a good month working for the man.

    This is wearing me down some. Seeing our total assets sinking instead of rising, realizing we will have to pass on a trip to Venice that my wife has talked about for decades, and wouldn’t have to if the glass were still intact. That cuts deep.

    The wolf is not at the door, but he throws insults everyday. I have to measure my assets in skills, not dollars, which I have always done, but it’s different when you don’t have a reassuring rising number at the top of the quarterly statement.

    Am I down or defeated? Naw. Just blowing off steam and doing a little expectation adjustment. The words are coming a little easier, fewer, better, more content, less crap. The stories are clearer, the arguments and explanations have less hand-waving. Honesty and integrity have taken a place I never realized before.

    This life is not bad. It’s better to struggle in the hard battle than to win at tossing pennies with some greedy pig dog wearing fancy socks.

    Thanks Shawn for talking about the real fight.

  7. Veleka
    October 13, 2017 at 11:52 pm

    Shawn, I’m taking a TV series development course and got stuck. Then I read your article and now I know why.

    “Fear of poverty. Of putting in years of blood, sweat and tears and getting nothing in return.”

    Thank you. And I’m going to write it anyway… because I’m enjoying myself!

  8. R A Labrenz
    October 19, 2017 at 6:57 am

    Shawn, Thanks for this. You guys always make me slow down and think the project through again. Taking the deep dive, revisiting ideas and discarding those that don’t hold my authentic work dear, is so good for me. Again, Thanks.

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