It’s November, which means that if you’re a fiction writer, it’s National Novel Writing Month for you. Given that the month is well underway, you may or may not be happy with your progress.
And that’s the problem with NaNoWriMo. How do you measure your progress other than just finishing the pursuit of the 50,000 word goal.
If you’re almost there, then good for you… but is it worth a damn? If simply finishing is your goal, then yeah, have a beer. Nothing wrong with that. Especially if you’ve learned something along the way.
Like, this novel-writing stuff is really, really hard.
But if your goal was to use the month to create something upon which you can build, both in terms of learning curve and raw material, then perhaps it’s better to stop right where you are. If you’ve realized that you’re okay with not reaching 50,000 words because just finishing wasn’t your only goal, then you can stop right now and be happy with the knowledge that you’ve not wasted your time.
Either way, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your novel won’t be built in a month.
The Unspoken Goal Shared By All
Admit it or not, but pretty much everyone who begins the task of writing of a novel has the same ultimate objective in mind – to publish the damn thing. To create something of value, something that touches people, moves them, makes them laugh and cry and think.
Once you fess up to that unspoken goal, everything changes. It’s like parenting, which you should be serious about if you want to succeed. There are principles to observe, methods that work and common mistakes that don’t. There are proven ways to get there, and if you’re just making it up as you go along – both in terms of novel and parenting – you probably won’t succeed well.
And that’s a shame. Because your publishing dream (again, very much like being a parent) is a serious and worthy goal. Your process should be just as serious and worthy, too.
The Criteria Shared By All
At the end of the day, no matter what process employed to create it, a great story has certain elements and criteria. You can take the long road or the proven efficient path to discover them all – your call.
Inherent to this goal is one scary yet illuminating truth: everybody who submits a manuscript finishes. And just finishing doesn’t mean you’ll get published. There are thousands of completed manuscripts arriving at publishers every month, and only a fraction get a second read
Only a fraction of those get a contract.
So How Do You Get There?
I’m going to tell you. Right now, in fact.
There are pat, cliché answers to the question, “How do I get published?”. Answers so simple and obvious – yet true – that they become naïve and insultingly dismissive in nature. Because you already know them.
Just write a great story. Give us a cool character with depth and meaning and soul. Touch our hearts and minds. Do something fresh. Surprise us.
Yeah, you deserve a better answer than that, don’t you. Duh. Here’s another way to view it, to quantify it, and maybe, to finally wrap your exhausted literary mind around it:
There are six core competencies you need to master – not dabble in, but actually master at a professional level – before you can write a publishable novel. That’s as true as gravity, death and taxes. They are:
Concept… character… theme… story structure… scene execution… writing voice.
Virtually any aspect of the writing process and its ultimate product can be dumped into one of those six buckets.
Now, there is good news and bad news where that’s concerned. Established authors, those brand names that won’t go away even though you read their stuff and think, “Hey, I can do better than that…” These fortunate folks need only to be good at these things. All six of them. Good as in better than the average submitted manuscript.
Hear that clearly: good. They don’t need to be brilliant. They’re already on the roster. You’re not. It’s their name that sells the book. You need something more, because your name, at this point in your writing career, is worthless.
Michael Connelly could rewrite the Santa Monica phone book and it’d be a bestseller.
You, on the other hand, need to be otherworldly brilliant in at least two of those six core competencies to break into the business of being published.
Read that again.
Two. Any two will do. In some cases, if it’s brilliant enough and the other five are simply very good (no small order, that), one will even do the trick. Better to try for two big winners, though, as that’s a rare commodity and almost always results in a publishing contract.
Make no mistake, though. The remaining core competencies need to be really good, as good as anything you see published today. And make no mistake, creating something otherworldly brilliant is abundantly, absurdly, hard.
That’s why people with a manuscript, even really good writers, aren’t publishing their work.
The Secret to Breaking into the Business
You don’t need to write like John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, and you don’t need concepts that make you think of Dan Brown. Unless you do have concepts that resemble those of Dan Brown, in which case that’s one of your two brilliant aces in the hole.
John Grisham hit it big with The Firm. A killer, totally cool concept. The other five elements… well, they were fine. His first novel, A Time to Kill, which was just as good or better in the view of critics, barely got attention. And the rest of his novels… again, good. It’s an opinion, but dare I say, Grisham isn’t quite up to brilliant.
And take Dan Brown. Had you heard of him before The Davinci Code? Nope. He hit on brilliance on two fronts with that novel: concept and theme. Character, not so much. His writing voice was just okay.
Brown has made $300 million to date – personally – by being astoundingly bold and brilliant in two out of the six core competencies.
Here’s a little insightful truth about getting published that explains this two-out-six principle. The folks who publish books aren’t looking for good. They see good every day. And they have plenty of good with their existing authors.
You, the unpublished author, need to show them something better than good, because they’re looking for the next home run.
Agents and publishers are looking for a book that becomes a whole reading experience and exceeds the sum of its parts. Something that rocks them to the core, material that they’ve never really seen before.
You have six ways, six core competencies, to leverage and give them that. If you can knock two of them out of the park while making sure the others are delivered at a level of quality that competes with those already-published authors, then you have a shot.
So as you review your NaNoWriMo manuscript, or your work in progress or perhaps the latest manuscript that came back to you in the mail, ask yourself some tough yet potentially life-changing questions:
Was there something about my story or my execution that was otherworldly brilliant? Off-the-charts original and compelling? Something, anything, that made it better than just good? That made the whole exceed the sum of its parts?
Maybe you’re selling yourself short. Just maybe you could do better. Whatcha think?