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   Poetry, Short Fiction, and Novel Workshops Phone: 703-262-0969
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Why Do Passionate Writers Fail to Publish?
Plus Hard Yet Reassuring Facts

Spend several years as an editor and/or workshop leader. Work and talk at length with scores of writers struggling to write and publish fiction, or their first novel. Do this and you will begin to discover why an enormous percentage of these writers (especially the first novel writers) are unable to get published. You will see patterns: the same mistaken assumptions, almosts, and detrimental psychological states repeated endlessly. At a conservative estimate, upwards of 30,000 writers in the U.S. are currently struggling to write and/or publish their first novel. Perhaps .001% of them will be published at some point.

I've sometimes been criticized for being the messenger, but I feel it's vital for writers to know these facts up front so they can adjust and be successful. Below are the top seven reasons why otherwise passionate writers join the 99.9% of writers who will never be published. However, please note the HARD yet reassuring facts that come next.

Michael Neff
Director, Algonkian Novel Workshops

  1. INADEQUATE WRITING SKILLS OR STORYTELLING/ STRUCTURE PROBLEMS. In the case of the former, the writing itself does not display the energy, creativity, and polish necessary to convince an agent to go deeper. This is perhaps the number one cause of failure. Usually, the writer is not aware--or at least, not sufficiently aware to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, she or he not realizing that tech or law writing ill prepares one. Also, the writer does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit. Or perhaps we're back to the ego obstacle. Also, we have the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting agents and publishers alike each time they meet it.

    In the case of the storytelling/structure issue, the writer may be very accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent or publisher gives it a good read then backs off. Why? Well, the story goes nowhere. It is insufficiently interesting, or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed me sample of his ms. His prose skill kept me turning, but finally, I bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.

  2. MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE MARKET. Virtually every time I speak with a student (especially genre students) I discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of first novels are currently being published in their genre. Why is this important? Because the first novels provide the writer with a concept of what the market is looking for. Also, it helps steer the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way way too deja-vu. Far too many writers make what I call the Sydney Sheldon mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a well published writer, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that icons like Sheldon can get away with horrible crimes and still be published. The writer needs to examine what types of first novels have been published in their genre over the past five years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results.

  3. EGO TIMES TEN. The writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or bad agents have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting . . . Perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career--why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing? I once had a successful venture capitalist person hand me their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their novel. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any interesting way; and the first couple of novel pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist. This person presented me the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting me to corroborate their own findings. Well, of course, irritation set in when I tactfully pointed out shortcomings. This person also did not believe me when I explained that the vast majority of agents would not , repeat NOT, read that 15 page synopsis regardless (and if they did, the novel ms was DOA).

  4. BAD ADVICE. Whether the source is an article, a friend, or a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing told me, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." I explained that would not happen--not for a first novelist with zero track record (plus the story was uninspiring and loaded with deja-vu). The writer needed pragmatic advice.

    Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who shelves the ego and seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed.

  5. MORALE LOSS. The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has gone stale and offensive. So what happened? Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary watersheds (and they happen to all writers!) and indicators of growth, become disillusioned. They quit.

    The second biggest cause of morale loss results from no success in selling the novel. It's been dragging on for years. The novel ms has been shopped around. No one is buying and feedback is confusing . . . Or perhaps the novel ms is resting like a one ton anchor on your desk (waiting for neck)--eight years later and still not ready despite several restarts and who knows how many total drafts!

  6. IMPATIENCE = LOST OPPORTUNITY. The story is pretty good, fairly original, and the writing likewise, however, the writer is impatient and sends out the ms too soon. Agents and editors will stumble over the prose a few times before reaching for a rejection slip.

  7. NO EDGE. The vast majority of first novel writers have not yet published work in viable short fiction markets. This makes it even more difficult to land a good agent. Many agents will not look twice at a writer whose cover letter does not demonstrate a track record of some type. A publishing record, even a meager one, helps convince publishers and agents that you have what it takes.

The Hard Yet Reassuring Facts

In response to the above, here are some FACTS about getting a first novel published (with a suitable publishing house) regardless of genre. This information is based on dialogues with top agents, workshop students, and my experience as the editor of the literary publication (Del Sol Review).

  • You MUST have a good editor. A good editor will tell you what you don't want to hear. A good editor will quickly see the small narrative speedbumps that will irritate an agent or editor and forever prevent your manuscript from being published.

  • You MUST learn your craft! Does that go without saying? You would be surprised at the huge number of aspiring novelists who know next to nothing about structural craft and fiction narrative technique. SURPRISE: many of them graduated from MFA programs!

  • You MUST have a good agent. (Can you get one? Yes.) A good agent is one with a strong track record and connections to major houses.

  • You SHOULD publish prior to submitting your first novel ms. Many writers won't accept this, but it's true. Under most over-the-transom circumstances, a good agent will NOT consider your work unless you've been first published in viable short fiction markets. (Don't be depressed. You have some work to do, but that's the literary life!) If you get in the right publication, the agent will come to you. FACT: good agents routinely peruse major magazines looking for new writers to represent.

  • You MUST avoid THE SYDNEY SHELDON MISTAKE. It's vital that you research what other first novelists are publishing in your genre. (This will give you a good idea what types of stories, protagonists, settings, etc., will most likely fly. Established writers can often publish substandard work and get published. You have to do better.)

  • You MUST avoid counterproductive group critique workshops. Too many opinions and various social conditions actually harm more than help.

  • You MUST Ignore all man-bites-dog stories about getting published. They are exceptions and only serve to confuse and build false expectations.

    Algonkian Novel Workshops


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Phone: 703-262-0969