Some Comfort, Maybe

On March 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, “The problem with querying is… that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.” I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which doesn’t is completely random.

This was not comforting.

Sadly, I think this is probably mostly true. And true of all the arts. Humans are drawn to art, and many of us are good at it and love to make it. There aren’t enough readers, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries to provide all of us with an audience, let alone a living.

Once the skill threshold has been reached, luck becomes important. Agents’ slush piles teeter to their ceilings. The interns and junior staff who read them–I’m guessing–find no easier to say than yes.

Many of you know that it took me nine years to get a manuscript accepted. I may also have written before that at one point in my long trek it occurred to me that if I had set out to become I brain surgeon, I would already have been one (aside from the fact that I’m too squeamish even to remove a splinter). This thought jumped to the fore when I met a doctor who had given up his practice to try to write for children. Yikes! I thought. I hope he knows what he’s getting into. Yikes! I hope he has savings!

During my pre-published time, an editor visited one of my writing classes. He said that the way to get published was either to write something great or to write about something that few were expert in. The only subject I was expert in was welfare programs for people who were healthy enough to work, and that topic didn’t seem promising for a children’s book. As for great, I felt defeated right off.

Hence the nine years.

Now, let me try for some comfort.

When I talk to kids about the nine years, I ask them for the moral of my story. Hands pop up, and the answer I get is, “Never give up,” which was true for me. If you give up, you don’t get published. You also may stop writing, and for some of us, that’s like cutting off a limb.

Okay, maybe not comforting. I’ll try again.

There’s another moral. During those nine years, I took adult ed writing classes and read the Newbery-and-Newbery-honor-winning books of the prior twenty or more years. Both helped me become a better writer and one who could write for the readers I wanted. In my classes, I met other wannabe writers. We supported each other. I joined and formed critique groups and made friends. Turns out, this was one of the happiest times of my life, even though achieving my goal still seemed more a dream than a likelihood. So the second moral is: While you’re never giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time. Which will help you stick with it.

Also, a critique group and classes gave me a (tiny) audience, and one of my most important reasons for writing was to be read. 0thers were self-expression and to learn a skill.

So these are comforts, I hope, for continuing to write, regardless of the eventual outcome, which, unless we have a crystal ball, is unknown. And I still find them valid. I’m published now, but I don’t know if a particular book will catch on with readers. My audience for any one book may be small, but I’ve still added to my skill set by writing it. I still have writing pals who sustain me. This, as I’ve said here before, is especially true of writing poems.

But there are things that we can do to increase the odds of luck smiling on us. Some of these, alas, don’t apply until you turn eighteen.

Go to conferences, if you can afford to. At many writing conferences, the editors and agents who are speakers and panelists will preferentially treat participant submissions, which means your work won’t be placed at the bottom of the slush pile.

If the conference includes a critique option from an editor or an agent, sign up for it, even if there’s an extra fee. Frankly, these industry readers (I’ve been one) will see a lot of work that falls sadly below any reasonable threshold. Writing that rises above will be a relief. The editor or agent will be so happy not to have only bad news to deliver to the writer. You may begin a relationship that, if not immediately, may result in an eventual acceptance.

When you’re there, move outside your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to editors and agents. Talk about your work. Do not mention your uncertainty about its worth.

Also, for the comfort of community, speak with other participants. Make friends, if any of them appeal to you. Share experiences. Get tips.

If you’re old enough and you’re writing for children or young adults (which these days extends into college age and a little beyond), join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.SCBWI.org), a great organization for people just starting out–in terms of its focus on getting published as well as on craft. Get involved in your local chapter, where there may be meetings and may be a regional conference that’s much cheaper than the national one.

Send your work out! You can’t get published if no one is looking at your stories. I once heard of a critique group where the person who got the most rejections in a year got an award–because the one with the most rejections is the one most likely, after a while, to get the most acceptances. I recently went through my files. My folder of personal rejections is about three inches thick! I didn’t keep the form letters, or we wouldn’t be able to get into the basement.

Don’t get in your own way!

For example, a woman in my favorite writing class was working on a book I adored. I don’t know if she’s finished it, twenty years later. I know it isn’t published, and I also know she’s shown it, or parts of it, to this friend or that. She keeps fooling around and not getting to the point, and the world is deprived of a great story.

If you do send something out and get criticism from an agent, take the criticism seriously. Try out what’s being offered to you, and do it relatively quickly. After you’ve revised, ask this person if she’s willing to see it again.

Before you send work out, proofread it obsessively. It should be free of typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. If it isn’t, you won’t get much of a reading. If you’re not good at this skill, ask someone who is for help–not with critiquing the story, in this case, just checking for these sort of mistakes. Same for query letters. With something as short as a letter, read it backwards, which will help you notice the itty-bitty things.

End of lecture.

But here’s a little more comfort: According to my favorite podcast, Planet Money, fiction writers are unlikely to be replaced by robots. Chances are better than ninety percent in our favor.

And new people break in all the time, and debut books come out constantly. Yours can be one of them.

So–since I have no prompts to offer this time–have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I’ve been thinking about the supply and demand thing lately as well. Great post! I know I haven’t been around here much lately, but I still read a lot of your posts and enjoy all your advice, Mrs. Levine!

    And on the topic of writers conferences, I’m going to my first one in just a few weeks! Couldn’t be more excited! I’ve even got a critique session and two pitching appointments set up. So to all you teen writers (I was you just a few years ago): keep writing! If you can make it to a conference or even a local workshop, do it. And if not, keep dreaming and saving those pennies until you can. 🙂

  2. I have a situation and an issue.
    Okay. So there’s this object, and two groups of people lay claim to it. Both think their claim is legitimate, and my protag is trying to find out the truth (more or less). The object is fairly ancient and steeped in myth on both sides. My problem is that I don’t know how to write a myth, much less two that conflict in just the right places and therefore lend credibility to two different claims. Also, I don’t know what, precisely, the object does (though I know what it is) or what the two groups THINK the object does or why the two groups want it.
    (You can probably tell I’m not a planner.)
    I tried to look and see if Ms. Levine had ever written a post about writing myths or anything of the sort, but I had a hard time searching the archives of the blog, so I decided to just post the question here. If she has and someone could redirect me, that would be great.

    • Well, imo, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write a myth. If it’s a sort of creation myth, I would recommend the book “IN THE BEGINNING” by Virginia Hamilton. It’s a collection of old creation myths from all over the world. If it’s not a creation myth however, that is a bit trickier to recommend a book for. There are many types of myths.

      I’d say go to your local library and just do a search for myths. Many will most likely come up, grab whatever seems like it would help!

      Hope this helps!
      -Inky

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      i haven’t written a post on this topic, but I will! In the meanwhile, does anyone have any ideas to add to Inktail’s excellent ones?

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      I’ve never really had much trouble writing myths, so I’ve never really thought about it. But in my experience, myths are usually stories: stories made to explain something, like a phenomena or how something came to be, stories that were originally true and grew to be bigger than the actual event (things like Paul Bunyan, King Arthur, etc), and stories about what may happen. So if you approach it as a story (which you definitely have experience with), then you should at least have a starting point to go off of.

      • Jenalyn Barton says:

        I forgot to include examples for myths about what may happen. These are stories like Ragnarok, life-after-death stories (the Egyptian afterlife has quite an interesting story to it), and stories about prophecies.

    • An example that comes to my mind is the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings. It’s treated rather like a mythical object, physically powerful, yet metaphorically as well, and people want it for different purposes. The story revolves around what happens to the ring, yet the characters become the meat of the story. Ultimately the object (and the way characters respond to its effects) embodies the themes of the whole series.
      I also agree with the suggestion to consider the Deathly Hallows and accompanying myth! The myth surrounding your object can be layered and exciting when you start thinking of the different ways people respond to it, or uses they would have for it. It would be a great way to dig into your individual characters.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Another good book that includes myths is The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. The story centers around an object, and while the characters travel to find it, those who know the stories tell them to the others. The myths are Greek style, with gods and goddesses and all their squabbles.

      I’m planning to write myths into one of my WIPs. I have two characters from different cultures, and I want them to have different explanations for something that happened long, long ago. I want them to each have part of the truth but not all. I have the “real” happening mostly figured out, and hope to write it someday in its own story. So I take that “real” event and try to run it through the lens of a couple thousand years and a cultural bias. I’m not sure yet how each character will tell it, but I have some ideas. One culture might be quick to attribute the strange events to magic, while the other might attribute them to the cleverness of a few of the people involved (along the lines of Braer Rabbit). One culture might see the results of the event as a curse, and the other culture might see it as a blessing.

      Now for ideas about your myths. Is it possible that your two groups of people might think the object will help them in their rivalry against the others? (e.g. In Redwall, they looked for the sword that was supposed to help them defend the abbey. Also, Cluny thought that the tapestry of Martin the Warrior was helping the defenders, since it was giving him nightmares). Think about your cultures – what is valued and what is wanted. Think about how the object could give what is needed. Once you know what the object does, perhaps you can figure out its “real” history, then tweek it for each group based on how they would view it and pass the story on.

    • Veralidaine Sarrasri says:

      Well, I’ve never done this before, but you might want to make two bullet point lists about each myth. Then, compare the two myths and see where they might clash. If you have to change the myths a little, go ahead. Just keep doing that and eventually you might have it.

  3. Bookfanatic102 says:

    Thanks for writing this post my stories aren’t very good but this inspired me to try again. I am not old enough to do anything you suggested for improving my writing what do I do?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m sorry! If you’re not home schooled, join a writing club at your school and get involved with the school newspaper. If you are home schooled, form a writing club if you can. Show your writing to friends who also love to read, the people you discuss books with. If they’re both kind and honest, ask for feedback. Of course, read and write. And read books about writing.

      Other under eighteen-ers, what do you do to become better writers?

      • Bookfanatic102 says:

        Thank you I’m home schooled so I can’t join a school book club but I show my friends my writing I ask them to be honest with their opinion but i’m not sure if they are lying because they don’t want to make me mad.

        • I’m home schooled and what I do to become a better writer is I read very often to expand my vocabulary, so in my writing i don’t have to be repeatitive with words, a larger vocabulary also helps me to be more descriptive and use more suitable words.

      • Under eighteen-ers should read, read, read—all kinds of books from a variety of genres and categories. And keep writing. But the reading is the most important because it feeds what kind of writer you’ll become.

  4. Thanks for the post. I have seriously been looking forward to this answer for months. I ended up going indie on my current book series (editting #3 now), because I decided that a small audience, even just family and friends, would be okay. It didn’t turn out quite like I pictured, but I have gotten good helpful reviews and experience. I’m planning on going back to querying traditional publishers on my next book.

    Anyone have tips for marketing for indie authors?

    • Song4myKing says:

      You’ve already started, so you’re more experienced than I am. But I just recently picked up a book called “The Indie Author Guide” by April L. Hamilton. I don’t know how useful it would be to you, since it talks a lot about publishing the book, which you’re already doing, but it does have a section on building author platform and marketing. I found most of the book helpful, as I’m still exploring my options and wanted to know more about self-publishing in general.

      Other than that, all I can say is that, based on what I’ve been reading, it mostly takes effort and perseverance to get your book out there and get it noticed by readers.

      • Thanks. One big takeaway I get from most guides is to keep publishing more stuff. I’ve been aiming for one a year, but they’re all the same series, so if you don’t start with #1, you’re unlikely to read #2 and #3. I think after I’m done with #3 I’m going to start a different story for a little while (still in the same world, but a few hundred years earlier).

  5. Your quote: “While you’re not giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time” validates my continuous reading of MG books as great examples I will follow in my own children’s writing. Thank you!
    Also love the local workshops and conferences sponsored by SCBWI. Just took a great class about Bullet Journaling for Writers (and Revisions) in Maryland!

  6. I would absolutely love to do the SCBWI, but it’s too expensive. Does anyone know of anything, either less expensive or preferably free, similar?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Local SCBWI conferences are cheaper, and the organization can help you get involved with critique groups, which are free.

      Of course, there are online sites where you can share your writing, which came up in comments on an earlier post. You just want one that’s supportive and not hyper-critical.

        • Veralidaine Sarrasri says:

          Like Mrs. Levine said, there are online sites where you can share you’re writing. I’m on one called Wattpad, and it’s a great site for both reading and writing. I’ve also heard of one called Radish, but I haven’t seen it yet.
          I hope that helped, Inktail.

  7. I needed to read a post like this today. 🙂 A good balance of a reality check and encouragement. Plus lots of good ideas and reminders! Nothing will ever happen with my writing if I don’t keep moving forward.

  8. Ellen Fisher Sanderson says:

    I’m having problems with naming. I really want all my character’s names to sound good together, and fit into the world. For example, Evelora, Faylinn, Alvar, Cas. But there are some of my characters who’s names seem too ordinary for my world, like Penelope, Sophia, and Finn. I already changed a name, but it really doesn’t feel right. I keep imagining him in my head as Noah instead of Kei, but Noah sounds out of place. Any advice for naming fantasy characters, or changing names in general? I think all of your names, especially in Fairest, are creative, original, and fit your world. How did you find them?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      In the Ayorthian language, every word starts with a vowel and ends with the same vowel, so the names follow that scheme.You might come up with something along the same lines, which will give your names consistency. For instance, every name might have at least one letter e, and the lettier might always be capitalized.

    • You might also take those names that seem to ordinary and tweak them to be unique. What about Pennel or Enello instead of Penelope? Koah or Noha instead of Noah? Phiosa instead of Sophia?

      • That’s how I ended up with Doria. It’s a typo for Doris.

        3 other characters in the same book, Ilion, Olean, and Avoca, are named after towns in New York’s Southern Tier. I got them off road signs on the way to a family reunion.
        (There’s another town nearby called Horseheads. I got a note from a reader saying “I’m from Horseheads. Did you do that on purpose?”
        Yep. I did. 🙂 )

        • Song4myKing says:

          A package came to our house with our road name misspelled. The first and third letters were switched, but the result was pronounceable and sounded rather neat. It’s now the name of a fictional town.
          Gotta love certain typos. (and as I was typing that, I typed “gotta” wrong. Anyone ever heard of a place or person named Gotat?)

    • I would suggest looking through baby naming books/websites. This is something I love to do and I find that helps a lot. Also, I really like to come up with words that I find really fitting for my characters, then I will go onto Google Translate and translate the word into Latin or another language that I love. Or I will just pick a random language and translate it. I might change the name around to something that I like, but I always keep the idea of the Latin word around. This might sound complicated and confusing, but I really love doing it. It is almost like a little secret that only myself, my characters and the people I choose to share it with know.

      Hope this was helpful! Good luck with your character names!

    • I keep a spreadsheet of potential names that I add to whenever I come across something good. I also recently acquired a really cool dictionary for twenty languages, so I look up appropriate words and see if any of the words in other languages sound like a cool name. I’ve been collecting names based on meanings. For instance, my Cole people have names meaning fire or red. Here’s my girl list for them:
      Berta, Calida, Carmen, Cerise, Chuma, Cindy, Derie, Edana, Embry, Fiamma, Gale, Ginger Lehava Rhoda Rose+ Scarlett Shula Wendy Winter Ash Rudy Reid

        • Those are both a stretch. I put Cindy on the list because of its similarity to Cinder. Wendy I stuck on there because some of my Coles can control wind–originally it was made up by Barry because of the phrase “friendly wendy” he heard kids chanting. So, both are more horrible puns than actually related names… but at least they’re not quite as bad as Drake’s friend Bill (male duck and beak) or beach-comber Bob.

    • You could use the chubby bunny method. Stuff your mouth full of marshmallows or cookies and then try to say the “normal” name. Whatever it sounds like is how you’ll write their name. Example: Jocelyn sounds like Jorshwin when your mouth is full, so the character’s name would be Jorshwin. I have a few more methods for naming characters on my blog, if you’re interested.

  9. Bookfanatic102 says:

    Does anyone think Petrus, Hemart, Ivote, and Merial are bad character names? My older sister does. I like them because they are unique and weird if you think they are bad character names can you think of any that are unique and weird that could replace them?

  10. Song4myKing says:

    Big sisters are like that. I am one and I have one. 🙂

    As a reader, the only one that I would have trouble with is “Ivote.” It looks too much like a simple sentence: “I vote.” If you pronounce it differently, see if there could be a different spelling that reflects it. If you do pronounce it “I vote,” you also could spell it differently, like Ivoat. But remember this is just my personal reaction. It does not mean you need to change anything at all.

  11. Here’s a question that perhaps someone would have a thought for: my W.I.P. novel has a young character who is struggling because she wants to be a writer, but feels her work is empty/incomplete. How would you write your character, so that readers would understand the problem fully?

    • One thing I’d worry about: I’m guessing that your character’s problem is either one you face or have faced. Are you far enough removed from that situation that you’ll be able to write a satisfactory ending? I’m thinking of a writing book I read once where the instructor was helping a lady write a book about keeping a second marriage together after losing her job, or something like that, but it turned out that the writer was facing the same problem as her character, at the same time, and she wasn’t able to let the story progress. It either became fluffy daydreaming or just stalled.

      Have you read “A Lantern in Her Hand” by Bess Aldrich? Her main character Abbie faces this problem:

      “In that saving, frugal way, born of necessity, she ironed out dark brown wrapping paper, which she had saved for years, and cut it into sheets. At forty-nine Abbie was finding her first opportunity to take time from duties which had always confronter her, to carry out this old ambition. For several afternoons she wrote of the things she had been wanting forever to get down on paper. The things she had wanted to say did not come as readily as she had always anticipated. The task was a little more labored than she had thought. When she had finished several of the brown papers, she put them away carefully in her bureau drawer. Duties descended upon her again before she had a chance to read over what she had written…

      On one of the short January days with the snow thick on the Lombardy poplars, Abbie, with almost a girlish enthusiasm, took out of the drawer the story she had written in the fall. She read it through and then, amazed and chagrined, she read it a second time. It was flat, insipid. None of the things which she had been thinking as she wrote, was there. The statements were dull and lifeless. Grace, at nine, might almost have written them. What was the matter She, who had so loved life, and so deeply lived it, could she not of all people get down on paper that which she had lived and loved? Apparently not.

      How did they do it, she wondered? How did those writers you loved make you live in their stories? How did their people move across the page like flesh and blood friends?…

      For some time she sat in stunned disappointment and looked t the snow thick on the cedars, and the gray bowl of a sky turned over the world. All her life she had dreamed of constructing something. She had told herself that if only she could find time, she would write of life as it was. And she had found time. But she could not write of life as it was. She had tried to tell of the journey over the uncharted sea of grass, of the nights under the star-filled sky, and the winds that were never still. But the words she had set down had not told it.”

  12. I have a question for Gail or anybody else who’d like to offer their 2 cents:

    I’d like to send a book to a particular agent I was on a panel at a convention with (but never really got to talk to, even though I think we both had fun on the panel.)

    I have 2 completed novels to choose from. I think Book A is more strongly written, but Book B is probably more to their taste (based on that panel.). Should I:

    Send A and hope that even if it’s not their thing it’s strong enough that they’ll ask if I have anything else.

    Send B and hope that it’s strong enough.

    Go back to the drawing board with B, realizing that the longer I wait the less likely it is that she’ll remember that panel. (It’s already been 4 months of me being wishy-washy. 🙂 )

    Something else.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Well… I don’t think you should send the book that needs more work, because it won’t represent you at your best. You can send A to this agent and others at the same time. I don’t believe agents expect an exclusive look.

      • Thanks! I’ve sent both books to agents before, but no takers yet.

        A has gotten the most comments, generally along the lines of “Well written, but I don’t relate to the MC.” I hope I’ve addressed that with a prologue from when he was a baby (He’s Malak the half serpent-demon. I think I’ve posted about him here before.)

        B, loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk) actually did get”Well written, but I don’t do YA” from one agent (It’s YA? I didn’t know that!), but when I went back to dust it off, it seemed kinda rambly. I think it could BE better, but I’m not sure I could DO better. 🙂

    • I definitely agree with Gail here–send the one that seems more complete. Don’t send one that’s needs more work. Imo, I would send A.

      Hope this helped!
      -Inky

  13. Carley Anne says:

    So, I have a question, Gail Carson Levine, concerning your latest blog post. Since the chances of becoming a published author is so incredibly small, would it be advised for me to continue striving towards hopefully becoming one?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I didn’t say that! I said it was hard, but people succeed all the time.If you’re going to keep going, you just need to know it may be hard.

      Others on the blog, please weigh in.

    • I’ll represent indie authors here. It’s not at all hard to publish as an independent author. Pros: you get a say in your cover and blurb, it’s inexpensive, you get a higher percentage of money, total control.
      Cons: there is a stigma for some people, you may not want to control some aspects, no immediate advance payment.
      As I understand it, both require extensive marketing now-a-days.
      The main trick with indie publishing is that anybody can do it. That means that the stigma is partly deserved: nothing stops people from printing absolute garbage. You have to prove to your readers that yours is actually worth reading–and there are a lot of good indie authors out there (Melissa Mead, for instance!). I decided to go with indie publishing when I decided that I would be fine with a smaller audience– I don’t need to make a living or make a best seller list.

      • Aw, thanks for the plug, Christie!

        I’m all for striving to become a published author. I may be an oddity- I don’t want to write for a living. For one thing, I’d have starved by now, even though according to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I’ve qualified as a professional author. Plus there’s no health insurance.

        OTOH, I think it’s the best hobby ever! Thanks to writing I’ve gone to conventions, met some of my favorite authors, gotten their autographs, been asked for my autographs, been asked for my autograph (ok, once), made some great friends, learned a lot, and gotten a pile of free books and magazines and some decent pocket money.

        So I’d say go for it! Just also go for a college education as backup. 🙂

  14. (I’ve posted this elsewhere…but I really love how helpful and supportive this writing community is, so I’ve decided to post it here too.)

    There’s a history of alcoholism in my family, like in many others, and while I personally don’t believe drinking is wrong, and I don’t mind if other people indulge in it themselves, I don’t think I ever will and I hate drunkenness. I’ve seen the people it’s ruined and the families it’s torn apart and I hate it.

    I’m writing in a time period where realistically nearly everyone who had access to alcohol would be drinking it. But I really really really really don’t want to glorify drinking even so.

    Does anyone have tips on writing that sort of thing without demonizing alcohol, but also without glorifying it?

    • Mention it when it’s important, don’t when it’s not. If you don’t draw excessive attention to it, it won’t seem like you’re preaching against it or condoning/glorifying it. You don’t need to go into detail about the drink: “The deep red wine swirled around in her glass, like liquid rubies,” or “…like the blood of her enemies.” Just keep it simple and to the point: “He put down his mug of ale.”

      And remember, our characters sometimes do and say things that we the authors don’t agree with. It’s what makes them more human—making their own choices, good or bad.

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