(originally posted July 12, 2009)
I recently spoke with a woman I know. She’s older, in her seventies, and likely as right-brained as I. For the time I’ve know her she’s been writing a book. It’s a thriller but it’s loosely based on her experiences during the war. She tells me she’s nearly done.
“It’s about 400 pages,” she says.
“Good length,” I reply.
“Yes,” says she, “it’s 190,000 words.”
Imagine my horror! 190,000 words is more than double what the publishing industry wants to see. But as I’m trying to decide what to say next it dawns on me that the math isn’t right. And then I ask the question I regret as soon as the words escape my lips, “that isn’t single-spaced, is it?”
The next twenty minutes are a debate. On my end we’re discussing what the industry is looking for – font, spacing, word count – and how she can get her manuscript where it needs to be. From her perspective the only topic is her desire to add her name to a laundry list of writers who have put out very long books, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and of course, Stephen King. She is oblivious to the notion that these cash-cows could write a phone book and their publishers wouldn’t bat an eye.
I have mentored a number of novice writers over the years. It can be pain or pleasure, depending on their attitude going in. But with this particular writer, who I adore, I wound up telling her that the rules are only true until they aren’t, i.e. that if she’s determined to try she could, possibly, succeed.
Now, the reality is that I know she probably won’t. But she didn’t want to hear how to fix things. She wanted me to tell her that she’s the exception, which I won’t do. I don’t think there’s nobility in telling someone what they want to hear if you believe it to be untrue. But I also don’t find grace in forcing my advice on to someone who clearly doesn’t want it. The situation leaves me stuck between the proverbial rock and it’s cousin, the hard place.
What is my point, you may ask? Well, airing frustration comes to mind. But more importantly I suppose, is a caution to the novice writer: you are not Stephen King. You may well have great talent coupled with high hopes and aspirations but in 2009, publishing is all about big business. You need to follow the rules, at least most of them, to achieve success. We all do it. We decide where we won’t compromise and then we compromise everywhere else.
As for Stephen King, I met him once — at Harvard. Nice guy. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. But once upon a time he paid his dues, just as we’re paying ours. Just as those we mentor will pay theirs. And you know, I kind of like it that way.