An open letter to “I am special” writers.

This post was originally written addressing a frustrated writer’s search for publication, but I’m featuring it now since it has lots of ideas for writers still struggling to get the words on the paper.  So ignore the cyber mice–if you dare.  :-)

I wasn’t sure what to write this morning since I’m chunking along on the novella and prepping PR for next month’s release, BLOOD WORK, and there’s nothing to say but that it’s work as usual.  But then I got an email from a hopeful writer who wants my special attention because he/she feels that his/her work is not getting attention in NY because of the sensitive subject matter, that he/she has a story to tell, but no one is willing to risk public outcry because of its explosive nature.  That I must have some special knowledge myself, because I touched upon what this particular writer dove right into and explored to its fullest.

I don’t answer personal emails, period.  If it can not be said in a public forum, then it should not be asked me “off the record.”  But it did strike me how often new writers can fall into a trap where they start blaming the industry for their lack of progress in getting their book published, claiming that NY is too short-sighted or timid to handle the timely topic that the writer has boldly, frankly, and sensitively delved into.

The honest truth is that NY is excited to find books they can sell, and if your book about space aliens struggling to find their sexual identity while masquerading as kids in a cosmopolitan ghetto being invaded by cyber mice intent upon taking over the world isn’t selling, don’t blame it on NY being afraid to publish a book with cyber mice in it.

The writer who came to me has my total sympathy.  I know the frustration of having something to say and no one listening.  The hard truth is that I don’t have anything special to tell him/her about how to become published with his/her manuscript full of cyber mice.  It’s not the cyber mice that is getting him/her turned down.  Stop blaming the cyber mice, and take a cold hard look at your manuscript or cover letter the way an editor or agent would.

Do you have a fast, quick opening that grabs the reader and dares them to turn the page?  Your first novel has to start quick, especially if you write genre fiction.

Do you have a unique writing voice that is attractive?  Agents can tell this from your cover letter.  Unique writing voices take time to develop.  5-10 years.  There is no shortcut.

Do you have writing credentials or mention a job that involves writing in your cover letter?  If you don’t, it’s not necessarily a “thank you, no,” but the next cover letter in the pile does, so if you are serious about writing for a living, perhaps you should slow down and get some credentials in the short story market or a job that involves writing every day.  Again, no short cut.

Do you clearly have the basics of grammar down, because that’s not the job of your editor.  I didn’t, and it took me a long time to find them.

Do you present yourself as a professional in your cover letter, or do you spend 4+ pages telling the story? Cover letters are one page.  Spend one sentence on the plot.  Maybe two.

Does your cover letter bribe, bully, or try to be clever?  That’s an immediate “thank you, no”, especially if you try to be clever.  Agents hate clever.  Chances are they have seen your clever twice already that morning.  Be professional.  They haven’t seen professional since lunch last week.

Your story is unique and special.  So is every story on that overtaxed editor’s or agent’s desk.  But there is hope.  There are a few things you can do to get your story of cyber mice published.

First, are you prepared to work for ten years with no pay?  Do you have someone who can help support you for those years before you find an editor or agent?   On average, it takes ten years for a person to say “I want to write a book” before they ever see their name in print, and several years after before they can quit their job, if ever, and have their writing sustain them.

If you are, here are my tips for people writing about cyber mice.

1.  Write every day, same time, same place, even if it’s only for 20 minutes.  This will train your creativity to turn on at a drop of a hat.  Two weeks of agony, and you will start to notice you will not be staring at a blank page when you sit down, but writing immediately.  I don’t know any authors who write only when they feel like it.  They treat it like the job that it is, even if it is a part-time job.  This is hard, but it is worth it.

2.  Once you’re producing work regularly, join a writer’s critique group, one that meets face to face on a regular basis if you can find them.  To stand before strangers and read your work, then hear what they say they think you can do to make it better is hard.  Be nice in your own critiques.  These are the people who are going to help you become published.  They will help you learn what is good advice, and what is bad.  They will help you develop your thick skin for the caustic readers who don’t like your work.  They will keep you motivated, and you will stand next to them when you go to writer conferences where the agents and editors go to find new talent.  You will be glad you have them beside you after several years with them. Friends make it easier.  To seek out strangers and show them your work is hard, but it is worth it.

3.  Once you have 2-3 completed manuscripts, start going to writer conferences where agents and editors go to find new talent.  I suck at cover letters, but I can properly convey my enthusiasm for a project in person.  Dress professionally at conferences.  Your favorite author may show up to a signing in a T-shirt and torn jeans, but I bet he/she didn’t when they met their agent or editor for the first time.  Don’t get tipsy–be dependable.  Agents/editors hate having to go to their superiors and explain why their client doesn’t have the ms ready as promised.  Don’t mob the agent or editor you want to talk to.  Please.  Don’t.  Spend two minutes and walk away.  Ask if you can send them a synopsis of your work when they get back to the office, and then remind them of meeting you in your cover letter.  (this is a huge in)   Be professional.  Do what Nora, (or Patterson, or King, or whoever) would do.  To see someone who can make your manuscript a book and not blow it is hard, but restrain yourself.  It is worth it.

But don’t blame NY for your lack of progress.  This job is the hardest, most frustrating, joyous, bestest job in the world.  And yes, bestest is a word–I just used it.  You have to want it so bad that you run the risk of alienating your family, ruining your health, and possibly missing an entire season of Game of Thrones.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and it won’t if you don’t put the time in.  It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

102 Comments

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102 responses to “An open letter to “I am special” writers.

  1. Pingback: The 20 Minute RuleChris Little | Chris Little

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  4. I think all Writer’s want to feel special, like their story is perfect and special and the ONE!!
    I’d been writing since i was well……12 or 13? At first it was just really bad fanfiction that never got finished then one day like 6 years ago i was watching the Winx Club and when the episode was over i had this sudden urge to go write. I did and after a few brain storms i came up with my first novel “An Unusual Adventure” took me 5-6 years of off and on writing to complete! But, i finally did….and after that i wrote a bunch more stories. Some never finished others completed but never rewritten.
    My mum is also a writer.

  5. I’ve never read so many replies to one of your posts, Kim, and everyone had such good comments. It reads like a chat room on writers working through their craft. I’m printing out your “Open Letter” and tacking it on my bulletin board.

    As for the cyber mice story, h/she probably didn’t have any zombies involved. Gotta have a few of them. Hmmm, maybe cyber zombies in a steampunk setting. Or zombie mice? Methinks I should return to my own story now . . .

  6. Victoria Eskey

    Thank you so much, Kim. Your advice is concise, positive, specific, and constructive. ^_^ I share the dream of wanting to see my name on the spine of a book on the shelf. One day I’ll get there. Thank you so very much for being so kind, generous and accessible to all of us.

  7. lurkerr

    Hi Kim,
    Long time no talk and, yes, I’m still reading the drama box :)
    It’s just good to know that software engineers aren’t the only “but I’m special” people :)

  8. Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

  9. The mind is a beautiful thing. I love your thoughts and the way you express them Kim. Have a spectacular weekend!

  10. Douglas

    Thank you for your advice on what it takes to be a writer, even part time. I have seen your comments and posts about what it is like to write and not be known by anyone yet and can say that my egg is not close to breaking open yet. Pesky dialogue.
    I am going the short story route myself to gain experience and hopefully gather a few of the credentials you mentioned in your post. I hope for the best for the writer you were refering to in the post and hope also that he/she has patience. A few of the people I know have said that they write short stories, but when I ask which publications or contests they sent to or entered, all have said “None, I don’t think any of it is good enough yet. Maybe someday I will try again.” Not going to get there that way.

  11. jkh

    Dear Kim, thank you for telling it like it is, without varnish or sugar-coating, but still making the reality palatable. You have great ability in that “genre.” I think you should collect all your bits about the writing process, and advice to the hopeful, and put it all in one place. I for one would download it onto a flash drive to keep for permanent reference.

    • I second JKH in spades. This is brilliant. You “should collect all your bits about the writing process and advice to the hopeful and put it all in one place.” A lot of us would be very grateful.

      I certainly am. Thank you. We’ve been writing all afternoon and chattering in social media daring each other to post ‘em on-line in Smashwords.

    • You are welcome, JKH. That’s a great idea about collecting everything. I think if you do a search on “writing advice” on my blog, it pulls just about everything up. -laugh-

  12. jkh

    Dear Jim in Warren, Summer is a great time to start taking charge and making differences in your eating patterns. So many fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe you can pair up or form a small group of folks who cook or at least prepare food together. It’s easier to share the work and the results. You’re going to feel so much better if you’re a little lighter. And kudos to Smudge the take-no-nonsense senior citizen kitty! (P. S. I’ve wondered if Rachel uses a “clicker” lancet device, too. I don’t know if I could do my b/g checks without one.)

    • Rachel uses a device that is not available. It’s a one movement device where you can beak the safety seal with the same thumb that you prick, kind of like flicking a Bic.

  13. Kim,

    You rock! I’m approaching my 10 years with several completed manuscripts, a professional sale of a horror flash piece I wrote, and I’m revising and beating up my current WIP and I cannot wait to send it out into the world after my crit partner and betas tear it apart. :)

    You gave/give some great advice. I hope all the writers reading your post pay attention to what you said. ;)

  14. I guess I should table my epic series about cyber mousetraps.

    One of the best things about learning to write? Learning from so many others who are excited about writing. My traditional writing education back in my school days has been dwarfed by advice of my favorite authors (Kim included, of course). And darnit if I don’t get loads of inspiration.

    I fully expect my WIP to suffer rejection after rejection. I’m not even half way to the million words I’ll need to get the hang of it.

    Then again, I suffered the same when applying to college and when applying to jobs…and I eventually ended up exactly in the right place.

  15. Brian

    Dear Kim,

    You are A-Mazing. That is all!

  16. Jennifer S

    Dear Kim,

    Thank you for the information and advice. I appreciate your honesty and direct approach to this topic. This post reminds me why I am not ready to be a fiction or non-fiction writer at this point in my life. If I revisit that decision later, I will come back here and re-read this post again. Enjoy the weekend!

    Best Regards,
    Jennifer

    • The nice thing about writing is that it will wait for you. You don’t have to go full force at it, but take it in its own time. The most important thing, which I didn’t put in Friday’s post, is that you should have fun with it.
      You have a great week, Jennifer.

  17. Dear Kim,
    What you say is wonderful, to-the-point advice. There are so many people who yearn to write–I just read an article in our local(The Charlotte Observer) about the boom in creative writing programs across the country! People nowadays have dreams of saying something meaningful, of leaving something behind that matters–and writing is one of those ways to do that.
    There is a site called writing.com where a writer can whet his/her need to write–all genres. It’s free to join, and there is an online community of people willing to critique people’s work(which gets copyrighted right then, as your article/play/poem is posted). You can earn points as you do so, too.
    I write, even though most of my stuff never gets published. I put my feelings/ideas on paper, either by jounrnaling(I’ve done that for years) or through poetry or essays. It’s a wonderful way to clarify your thoughts, and, when I read what I’ve written several years earlier, I can see the changes in my style and content.
    Don’t give up–write, even if only for the joy of it! And , thank you again, Kim!
    Love and hugs,
    Tina

  18. I’m sorry. Just a moment to remember Peter Falk. As you wish.

    In my day, movies were books.

  19. Kim, I tweeted your post earlier and now my gal pals are coming over to brainstorm, eat munchies, pick a group workshop and write, write, write, write, write.

    As a virtual writing mentor YOU BLOODY FRIGGIN’ ROCK!!! We are sooooo officially adopting you (in a Penelope Trunk / Brazen Careerist we are not shy about what we want so are happily going full steam after it kinda way – LOL).

    You are now my writing hero. I love irony and delicate snarky always floats my naughty boat (Yup – grinning like fool – LOL).

    Going back to watch your YouTube interviews and book tour clips again. You make very interesting character plot/pace points in them. Do you think you guys could eventually create brief video clips on The Drama Box? I’d rather lurk on your official YouTube channel and over here than having to sort through over a thousand others to find you (as in 1,290 and counting – LOL).

    Enjoy your weekend, Lovely. This post was amazingly mad fun to read. I actually read it twice. Now you have me craving more Kimi writing tips (and have given me a new artistic visual for the phrase Burning Bunnies – LOL). ;-)

  20. Stephenie

    I’m going to copy paste this into my brain. Seriously.

    Since we are on the topic of writing, I want to send out short stories both in the genre and out, but I don’t know what magazines I should get copies of to do research. There are SO many. If you have any advice about literary journals or magazines that would be both good reads and good research I’d appreciate it.

    Cyber mice make me think of HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. DON’T PANIC! (My motto)

    • Stephanie, try the 2011 Writer’s Market. It’s excellent. It has over three thousand listings of who is looking for what type of writing. Great tips in there too about getting published.

    • Stephenie

      Yeah my grandma bought it for me! It’s been helpful, but I still don’t know what publications I should buy.

    • Stephanie, “Writer’s Digest” is a very nice magazine. We sometimes sit on the floor of Barnes and Noble and thumb through it like little kids while we wait for the poetry readings to start:

      http://www.writersdigest.com/GeneralMenu/

    • Hi Stephanie. Mmmm, I would go with two or three to start with that appeal to you the most. They are the most likely to be a good match for what you write. There should be an address or web site you can contact for submission information.

      When I submitted, It was to SF and Fantasy magazines, but if you don’t write SF/Fantasy, I have no clue what would be a good market for you.

  21. donna

    lol.. i’m SOOOOO glad i never had the ambition to be a writer.. i think i’ll stick to training house cats to do tricks on command… its easier… I’ll leave the miracle of creating worlds and stories to people like you and my other favorite authors…

  22. Antonio

    :shock: I’m not special?

    But, my mother always said I was special…

    Well, that’s disappointing.

    Maybe if you gave ‘Cyber Mice’ another try–just read the first chapter. My main character, Harry Mouse, is taken by a friendly giant to a magical school for cyber mice where he learns he is a wizard and…wait a minute–crap!crap!crap!–I just realized that’s the plot of Harry Potter. (hangs head, kicks imaginary pebble) Never mind.

    >>>Speaking of special: I read in the paper today that an entreprising confectioner at the San Diego County Fair is selling Fried Kool-Aid. For real. His deep-fried Oreo Cookie went over so well, he thought he’d ‘branch out.’ Have you guys been to any fairs this year? Seen any demolion derbys? Be good! 8-)

    • Marsha

      I just had to look that up Antonio, just to see how the hel…uh heck you fry Kool-Aid. It is cherry Kool-Aid that is made into a batter and then deep fried, so it is in essence a Kool-Aid fritter. Hum, I wonder if they make a cherry Kool-Aid syrup to drizzle over it? I would.

    • Antonio

      Apparently, the Minnesota State Fair sells deep-fried spaghetti and meatballs.(shudder)

    • Theresa

      hehehe your funny ;)

    • -grin- Trust me, Antonio, you are special. -laugh-

      I heard about that with the Kool-Aid! I don’t know . . . It’s probably really good, but . . . mmmm.

  23. As always, great stuff. Thanks for all the guidance over the years.

  24. Randy

    Thank you.

  25. Totally bookmarked this. I’m not ready to start yet because of school, but once I have my degree, I am going to come back to this link and use this as my template of how to succeed. :) Thank you again, Kim.

    I cannot express how much you have helped me over the past year. I am amazed at how you are able and willing to give your time to help people out. Thank you.

    • There is no wrong way to write, Greg. But this is what worked for me.

      You keep up the great progress. It will pay off in ways you can only guess at.

  26. Vampyre

    …but what about us ‘speshul’ readers?

    Have a great weekend.

    V^^^^V

  27. David M

    So when can we expect this book with the cyber mice?! I’m looking forward to it. :)

  28. Brilliant! Thank you. I was channel surfing last night and came upon “A League of Their Own” just in time to hear Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan say, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.” It made me think of the days when I’ve managed to haul my butt out of bed at 4:30AM so I could get my writing done…and the days when I haven’t. It’s hard but in truth that IS what makes it great!

  29. ” Dress professionally at conferences. Your favorite author may show up to a signing in a T-shirt and torn jeans, but I bet he/she didn’t when they met their agent or editor for the first time. Don’t get tipsy–be dependable. Agents/editors hate having to go to their superiors and explain why their client doesn’t have the ms ready as promised. ”

    3-4 years ago the TD an intellectual Property attorney. The kind that works with contracts and patents and copyrights.
    I think he was given the same advice by the law school when the students went to meet and greets by various law firms.

    It’s sad though. When a researcher or a writer (TD has several he works for that need someone to chase down old photo rights) doesn’t have their material ready on time, it means I don’t get to see the TALL DUDE! Guess agents have lives and SO’s too.

    Excellent post. I am working on rewrite 3 or 7 depending on the chapter. Between Magical Words, you and another writer I follow, even if it never sees the light of day, at least it will be the best I can produce. :P

    • What/Who is magical words? I’m intrigued with the phrase. :-)

    • Magical Words
      Writing tips and publishing advice for aspiring novelists.
      http://magicalwords.net/

      There is a post each day from various authors, editors, agents, about the nuts and bolts of genre fiction writing.

      I don’t always say much, I’m not actually far enough to use much of the information, but it’s really helpful, the folks are great, and the book by the same name is fabulous. I actually went to ConCarolinas to meet them and wasn’t scared! *Okay, I don’t scare easily, still, I did have a roommate I’d never met). It was an amazing time and I learned more about apocalyptic zombies than I ever expected. There is also a strong beta group associated with Magical Words.

      Mud

    • Awesome! I am sooooo going over there right now. Thanks Mud!

    • And that is exactly what you want, Mud. The best you can produce. The more you produce, the better your best becomes. ;-) As long as you are enjoying the process.

  30. Tim Collins

    To potential writers,

    As far back as I remember my Dad, (Insurance salesman/race horse owner) would sit in the cellar typing up stories and manuscripts. He would bundle them up with string and put them in boxes and continue. When He retired and was about to go out into the country, his daughter asked him what do we do with all theses boxes? The cellar was full with box on top of box of books, poems and stories he wrote over decades. Bottom line? They were all thrown away. A number of years later while mom was slowly dying of alhimezers and Dad was going blind, yet trying to take care of her, he wrote a slim book of poems. Most were ones he did from memory of work he had done decades ago. Most were love poems to my mother. My brother had them published. It was not a huge publication, but professors at Johnhopkins University wrote essays of praise at the begining of the book. Every dime made went into Alhimizers reseach. Now, at last Fathers’s day, Dad being completly blind and 88 now, sat outside, his head in his hands muttering to himself… “focus… I most focus my mind to write one more book.” He’s blind now. There will be no further books.

    To read and reread your work while you write is essencial.

    He’s done.

    A few years ago I asked him why he never sent in all those stories, poems, and hundreds of books he wrote. But had them destroyed instead. My Dad, who I was sure was frightened of nothing looked at me and said. I was afraid. I was afraid they would be regected. Each book was my baby. I threw my mind and talent into each one. I could not bear the fact some stranger would reject any of them. To find any of my childern lacking in their eyes. I would rather have them destroyed than have that happen.

    I was never so shocked to hear this from my “Hard as nails. No excuses ever accepted.” father.

    The purpose of this story? If you write a book or novel, send it in. If you can get a established writer to put a foot note with the book do so. Don’t give them the whole book. But the first 2 chapters only, learn to put a hook in the first sentences to pull the writer/editor in.

    But the bottom line is at least mail it in. Learn from the exsperience. Don’t be a old man with his abilities slipping from his fingers trying to finally make his dream come true. The old saying…
    “It is never too late.” is a lie.

    It took Mom’s death to kick start my Dad into taking a risk.

    Do it.

    Do it now.

    Tim

    • AKR (Trinidad)

      Where’s the “LIKE” button when you need it … :-)
      Sorry wrong forum …lol
      Well said Tim Collins, wise words indeed … <3

    • This story took my breath away. Very wise words. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience so that we may better ourselves.

    • Tim, you put tears in my eyes.Thank you for sharing this.

      I have three books sitting in the bottom of my closet I wrote when I was an investigator for a NYC mayoral agency. It was a secret therapy that helped me cope with 8 to 17 hour shifts of dealing day in and day out with crime and the system flaws I couldn’t have dinner conversations with family and friends about. I am going to dig them up and look them over and start a re-write of them because there was one particular murder I never got over that actually caused me to stop writing.

      I was afraid to have anyone discover what I really felt, plus I am a bit anal retentive so the visuals never go away… Putting down those impressions helped me cope with the mental isolation of not being able to openly talk about work. There is a reason they call it the Blue Wall of Silence, but it’s not the TV/Movie reasons a lot of people think. It’s because the few times we try to share the horrific in our law enforcement lives normal people shut us down. We are trained to run towards the danger everyone else is running away from so they never appreciate being reminded of what they’d rather avoid.

      Along comes the internet and at some point I discover I like being a transparent writer babbling about what ever interests me plus I can spoof about what I used to do once in a while to freak people out (LOL).

      I actually started blogging in 2008 and got the publishing bug last year when a few of my girlfriends started getting publishing deals. One of them lives in CA and writes for the NY Times About.com website as a guide. She trained me to crank out 2000 words a day no matter what. Then I stumbled across an editor in AZ who likes my music and blog, does commercial real estate and is a Rock DJ who works with published romance authors.

      It freaked me out when she started name dropping because when an editor believes you have books in you based on your blog posts it’s more difficult to keep making inane excuses why you aren’t done with that book draft yet. She makes me send her a chapter at a time to keep me writing and will have me on the phone at 3 AM if she has too.

      We laugh a lot about the time zone issues while we banter/debate about the things that come out of my mouth but I think the reason I’ve started to sit on my book drafts is because I’m afraid of getting my babies rejected. It’s not like I’m babbling and being facetious on my blogs. Creating is very intimate… I am 411 pages in and getting to 500 scares me. 500 means I’m technically done and anything else is gravy.

      I can not drag my feet after reading this…

      So now I have to write e-shorts to break the publishing ice and go to workshops to get my butt kicked into gear… Hmm… After reading about your dad I realize how bad I’ve always really wanted to do this… If I do this I will be the first writer in my family… My family tree goes back to the 1600s so it will be a historical moment in Tann history. Time to crash and burn that bridge, eh? (LOL)

      Warmest regards to your dad and may he get his book done. Thank you for sharing his story.

    • That’s a true shame, Tim.

  31. Well said. Well taken. Thank you.
    Lynn

  32. Brandy

    Thank you for this Ms. Harrison! Truly inspirational, and it lets me take away a few tips for when I need it. It’s slow going, but I’ll see you at the top!

  33. Wonderful advice Kim, thank you for sharing it :)

  34. Natalie

    Thank you, Kim.

  35. Maryellen

    Well said, Miss Kim! Thank you! There are far too many who think that every word they type is gold from the gods. They don’t want to work at it like an artist works with a lump of clay or a musician who will practice for hours, weeks, months to perfect a particularly difficult piece. It’s easier to blame the inudstry for their lack of progress.

    I write every day. I have to because if I don’t my characters will invade my dreams, demanding to be heard. It’s their story, not mine- I’m just the transcriber. Maybe someday I will decide to share it with the world at large instead of just my writing group, Maybe. ::shrug::

    I think everyone should write. But the question of whether or not to publish is a personal choice and so many people think that once they see their name in print their lives will change forever. It IS indeed a shot in the arm (and one that I’ve enjoyed myself), but the next day it’s back to being just you and a blank screen.

    Okay, I’m off my soabox now. Hope you have a lovely weekend, Miss Kim! :)

  36. Summer

    Thank you. I had started to do all of that and lost my expanded first draft in the only hard drive crash I have ever had in my 30+ years in dealing with computers. Sure I had a backup but… not so much. I just have not been able to focus enough to get started again. Your post is lighting the way and I very much appreciate that.

    Have a great weekend!

  37. Jenn

    Thank you so very much for this post, Kim. I am going to take every word of it to heart and put it to practical use.

  38. AKR (Trinidad)

    … WOw … now that’s advice of a successful writer … :-)
    Writing is a skill …. as I discovered in my last job as a research officer for a regional organisation.
    A strict case of not what you say but “how” you say it, especially when you have a boss screaming at you to hear what they’re “not saying” ….

    Good luck to all you writers out there … persevere!!

    Me? … I’m a reader … :-)
    Bring it on … :-)

    AKR (Trinidad)