The Bestseller On Your Desk

Scrawled in blood crimson across the whiteboard in my office are timeless words from Debbie Macomber: “Never leave a finished manuscript on your desk.” Taking her advice one way, I could snatch up my book and shove it in a drawer. Or, I could do what Sara Gruen, bestselling author of “Water for Elephants”, did with her first effort – stuff it in a shoe box under the bed, where it‘s been collecting dust bunnies for a decade.

What Ms. Macomber was suggesting, though, was more proactive – pull up your big girl panties and send that mass of paper out the door. Unless your book is out in the world where people can read it, you‘ll never sell it. Or, make a dime from it. And, the world of readers will, forever, be deprived of your gift.

That said, I just spent the weekend listening to famed story doc-tor, Robert McKee, intone that our first books will be trash. That it takes ten years of writing to learn sufficient craft to write one good screenplay or novel. And, that the minute we stop honing our craft, we will have abandoned our “passion for perfection”, miring ourselves in mediocrity.

Should I start a bonfire with my first novel, I asked him? “No, of course not,” he said. “Just make it perfect and send it out. Some-body will read enough to see you have talent and work with you to develop it. Unless it really is crap – his word – then, throw it out.”

McKee turned away to sign another copy of his bestselling book, “Story”, but thought of something else to tell me. “All it takes to write well is talent, taste, a basic understanding of the principles, and perseverance. Keep writing.”

That‘s the same advice I heard from Linda Howard at the PRO Retreat in San Francisco. Even she confessed she wrote “crap” for twenty years – again, her word – before she wrote well. Ask any successful writer – each one will tell you:

1) Never stop learning your craft
2) Never stop writing
3) Never stop submitting your work.

Your work needs to reach a reader‘s eyes. Whether it‘s a critique group, a contest, an agent or a publisher, another‘s perspective will guide you to understand your strengths and weaknesses. I‘ve found that contest judges who gave me the lowest scores also gave me the most help. They caught flaws I could correct, while pointing out my unique strengths, giving me the confidence to continue writing.

I‘m a big proponent of contests because the only risk is time and cash, a little of each. Not much more costly than a pizza, isn‘t your career worth take-out?

Some people grump about contest rules. Yes, it‘s annoying to squeeze a couple chapters of your already written and rewritten work of love into a contest format with that all-important “hook” at the end. Maybe you need to think like a Roman.

The ancient master of the hook was none other than the lyric poet, Horace, who lived during the reign of Augustus. Horace advised fellow writers to end a verse in the middle, leaving audiences “on the edge”. So, go back and look at where changing the font puts your story. You might just have a more interesting hook. If it‘s still too long, try paring the early setup. And, remember, you can always go shorter than the submission max.

By the way, Horace also authored the phrase carpe diem, or “seize the day”. It seems he didn‘t let manuscripts gather dust on his desk, either.

Nor did he stop learning his craft. He wrote and re-wrote every verse; critiqued his fellow artists; and finally, by popular request that found its way to Caesar, wrote the Ars Poetica outlining the tools of his trade as a guide for any writer to follow.

Today, there are hundreds of tools available for learning to write well; many are free. Check out RWA Conference CD‘s from the chapter library. Invest in one of the dozens of RWA online workshops. I just finished an excellent PR course taught by Marcia James and I‘m signed up for Power Openings by Kris Kennedy. Maybe I‘ll see you lurking there.

And, when you reach the point where you crave total immersion in craft-study, really invest in yourself and take a master‘s class. McKee‘s Story Structure class was a revelation; all the information will take months / years to absorb. Still, I have 30 pages of typed notes plus dozens of ideas specific to revising my books.

Now, it‘s time to write – or, maybe to follow Horace. He famously said, nunc est bidendum: Now we drink!


Jody Brightman is a long-time writer, first-time novelist whose new book is TIMBER FALLS about a beautiful scientist and a shape-shifting wolf.

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