The Writer’s Lament

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Writer’s Lament:

Lament One: I’ve written my first book. It’s not only fresh and well-written but I’ve experimented with technique and really pushed the envelope when it comes to content and format. My critique group calls it a work of literary genius. So why can’t I get anyone interested it it?

Lament Two: It’s like one writer from our group. He’s writing superb SciFi– some of the finest you’ve ever read. And it’s written for the Christian market, deeply spiritual with a character who is not ashamed to seek Jesus when things get tough. But just try to find an agent or editor even willing to read the manuscript. It makes no sense.

Lament Three: Every time the critique group gets together it has begun to feel like a lesson in futility. Another writer– an excellent writer– writes generational historical fiction. Her characters are well-drawn and her plots are multi-layered. These are big books, about 200,000 words each. Blood, sweat and tears have gone into each book but do you think she’s been able to sell a single book?

Lament Four: A newer member writes children’s books. Again these are good–really good by any standard–based on her great-grandmother’s life. These books read just like Little House on the Prairie.

Lament Five: Even our nonfiction writers keep getting passed over. We have one pastor who packs out the church each Sunday with his sermons. He’s compiled these into a book– kind of The Best of Pastor Miller. These are tried and tested messages. It sounds like a no-brainer for a publisher, right? Wrong. He can’t get a bite despite having attended a writer’s conference.

Agent’s Lament:

Lament One: I received this proposal and just sent out a rejection. There were indications the writer could write and the plot was intriguing but the technique was so showy the story took a back seat to the fancy footwork. Why do writers get so caught up in trying to write a book that that will impress their creative writing professors? That’s a mighty small audience. Besides a new author needs to gain a readership and gain the trust of those readers before he ever attempts to push into uncharted waters. Why do so many new writers long to “push the envelope?” Why not just try to write a great commercially viable book. That’s what I can sell to a publisher and that’s what publishers can sell to bookstores. That’s the book readers want to buy. Such a shame.

Lament Two: I can never figure out why a writer would write a whole book– a gargantuan task– without ever researching the market. Frustrating! This writer can write but as of yet there’s no discernible market for SciFi in CBA. A few publishers have tried it and abandoned it. It’s true that lots of people read SciFi but they buy it from the general market. If I confronted this writer with these facts he’d claim it would make a perfect “crossover” book or that he’s looking for an agent to sell it in the general market. One problem– a book filled with references to faith and Jesus is not going to find a home in the general market any sooner than a book with graphic sex and violence would find a home in the Christian market.

Lament Three: I love historical fiction but 200,00 words? It shows me this writer doesn’t understand the market. Yes, Ken Follett might be able to get away with a book of this heft but it would be the kiss of death for a debut author. Books are priced based on what it costs to create the book. Why would someone buy an unknown author’s trade paper book for the same price they could get the newest Janet Evanovich hardcover? Book length is a simple matter of economics. A new author shoots herself in the foot with a book that is twice as long as other books in the genre.

Lament Four: Little House on the Prairie is a classic. It was written a long time ago and even though we still love to read the series, styles change even in children’s books. An editor does not want to see a clone of an age old classic, he wants to see a book written for a twenty-first century audience. Too often children’s books are written for some idealized child reader, more like the children the author remembers from childhood. These sentimental books rarely find a home.

Lament Five: Not another book of transcribed sermons! The written word is far different from the spoken word. Creating a nonfiction book requires planning, a story arc, stories to illustrate the concepts, features– not to mention a compelling idea that hasn’t already been tackled.

Your turn. Do you have your own laments? Are you frustrated by the market realities? What kinds of issues might be holding up your break into publishing? Let’s talk. Maybe we can figure why some excellent writers keep receiving a polite “No thanks” to their queries or proposals.

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85 Responses

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  1. Jill Kemerer says:

    This is important information–thank you for sharing it! I think belonging to a writer’s group, subscribing to industry blogs, and talking to published authors makes such a difference for aspiring authors to understand what publishers want. We need to be deliberate about what we write if we want to go the traditional route.

    I also think experience–writing book after book–is important.

    When I started writing I was competent in some areas, but I’ve finally reached the point where everything is coming together. This only happened within the last 9 months and I’ve been writing full time for six years. I think everyone has a different learning curve, and being a “good” writer isn’t always enough to get your foot in the door. The book needs that something extra.

    My books have grown more complex, and I’m able to weave the arcs and character development together in a way I couldn’t when I had less experience. I’m really excited! It’s pretty amazing to gain true confidence in my work. πŸ™‚

    • lisa says:

      I like what you said about experience. I’m seeing this in my own work. The days of writing flowing into the next are helping me become stronger and stronger. I’m glad you had a moment when everything came together. I feel like I’m getting closer to that moment πŸ™‚ It takes a lot of hard work and patience!

    • Thanks for sharing your circumstances this morning, Jill. So encouraging!

      • Jill Kemerer says:

        Thanks, Lisa and Meghan! I wrote a book last fall and couldn’t believe it came together the way it did. Thought it was a fluke! But I’m writing another right now, and it’s the same thing. Practice, time, and experience DO pay off!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Isn’t that a good feeling when it all begins to come together? Keeping up with what publishers want is a full-time, often frustrating job.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Jill, I’m looking forward to reading your books. πŸ™‚

    • Larry says:

      Indeed! When we as writers realize out writing is better, it is marvelous; but when writing, of any level or genre, is able to click with readers, it is something magical.

  2. Jeanne T says:

    Wendy, this is a helpful post. πŸ™‚ I love seeing the agent response to some of the laments you mentioned.

    I’m discovering one of my craft areas to work on is to make my stories more unique. A couple authors have helped me to see that my stories sound familiar. Uh-oh. I’m striving for fresh, not familiar. So, this is one area I’m working on as I plot out my next story.

    The market is what it is. I’m figuring out how to thrive within its parameters, since I do want to go the traditional route.

  3. lisa says:

    Thanks for such great encouragement. We have to be really prepared and study up on what agents, editors and the markets are looking for, never assume… Earlier in my writing (I haven’t been going very long, so like a year ago πŸ™‚ I was being way too abstract. It feels wonderful to be freed from that!

  4. Interesting perspective switch! Regarding Lament #2, thank you for confirming I made the right decision in writing sci-fi that will appeal to a Christian audience but isn’t overtly Christian. Sometimes the choice to have a praying protagonist actually distracts from the Christ-like message of a story.

    • Heather says:

      I would also like to add that many of Sci-Fi readers don’t believe there is any science in faith, so for readers it can seem like a bit of betrayal. There are a few successful ones though, Strangers by Dean Koontz comes to mind.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That is so true, Megan. I love the words of C. S. Lewis: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects– with their Christianity latent.”

      • My current WIP draws its core inspiration from Lewis’s incredible novel “Till We Have Faces”. In fact, I describe my writing as “mythology-infused science fiction”; the style feels more like fantasy, but as there are in fact aliens and spaceships, I fear it must be called sci-fi.

    • Larry says:

      Hmmm….I wonder how many other sci-fi writers there are here in the community? It certainly is an under-represented genre: the Kindle store has literally not even two dozen books in the genre (Christian sci-fi), or somewhere around that many books.

      And I think Wendy summed it up really well with the C.S. Lewis quote. Indeed, I think Christian Sci-Fi writers are one of the more interesting groups of writers today. Not only how as a community they find themselves outside traditional secular and Christian publishing circles, but the ways in which they are writing tales which exemplify that C.S. Lewis quote.

      • Larry, I imagine if you narrow that search field down further by looking only at female Christian sci-fi authors…you’d get no hits. Though I haven’t looked, so I might be surprised! At secular writers conferences, I get enough surprised looks already when I say I write science fiction. No need to really freak them out by mentioned Christianity…

        That particular C.S. Lewis quote has long been a favorite, and I have shared it on many occasions when discussing the power and importance of story.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        CBA publishers have tried christian SciFi from time to time– like Karen Hancock’s books (yes, a woman who previously wrote some of the Star Trek books). When they try it again and it takes off, you’ll see every editor looking for the perfect Christian SciFi writer for their house. But so far, they’ve not been able to make it work in CBA. SciFi aficionados do not go to CBA sources for their books. At least so far. But don’t think they’re not testing the waters all the time.

        Marcher Lord, a small pub house run by Jeff Gerke, is the one exception. And you’ll see Marcher Lord dominating the category at the Christys.

  5. What an eye-opening post, Wendy! Thank you for letting us get an inside peek. I love learning from you all and receiving the confirmation that I’m headed in the right direction.

  6. Heather says:

    Wendy, those laments are really good, and are making me wonder about that critique group where everyone thinks everyone should be published… (kidding!)

    My lament: i have tried out many styles and they all seem to work, but I am expected to stick to one genre. Alas!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Yeah, you liked my fictional critique group, right?

      As to your lament, it’s okay to experiment while you are seeking publication. The book that actually sells is going to narrow the field for you automatically. At this point you don’t know if your voice is best in this or in that. The market will help you decide.

  7. I’m actually encouraged by market realities. I know, smack me, I’m Pollyanna. (And oddly enough, my last name at birth was ‘Polley’. Go figure.) But with Laura Frantz, Sandi Rog and the upcoming Lori Benton all writing excellent historicals with evenly and respectfully written Native American characters, I have hope that one more will only make the salad better. I have chosen, or have been chosen by, a story with a twist on the romance. There is an edge, but not a deep one. Not enough to scare away the CBA. I know I’ll find the agent God has set for me. Someone who gets the heart of the story and wants to run with it. Maybe I am Pollyanna, today. Maybe it’s the painkillers. πŸ˜‰

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      No, you are right. You’ve identified that there are readers who read the kind of book you are writing and you know you will seek the agent who “gets you.” That’s so important. I had phone meetings with three of my clients this morning and when talking about upcoming books I get so excited. They are writing the very books I long to read. Believe me, it’s not hard to sell their next books when I’m crazy about their writing and their ideas.

    • Larry says:

      That’s wonderful, Jennifer. From what I’ve read of you describe your novel being, it sounds really powerful, so I’m glad that the particular sub-genre is starting to get noticed.

      For my writing, I wonder how long dystopian romance is going to be something readers look for?

    • Go, Jenn!

  8. Loved, loved, loved this post, Wendy. There truly are two sides to every story, which you eloquently display here.

    Lament Four is a challenge for me because I am inspired by Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables, but they aren’t the rage for kids today. Yes, some still read them, but if I gage general interest by what I see at school book fairs and by my daughters’ reading habits at 11 and 9 years of age, then my writing something similar doesn’t seem marketable. Blending the past and present like in Circle of Secrets by Kimberley Griffiths Little or Amber House by Kelly Moore might be better for today’s readers.

    • Jill Kemerer says:

      Cheryl, you made me think. Little House and Anne of Green Gables were the rage with us when we were young. I still ooh-and-ahh over both series.

      If they aren’t the rage with kids today, why not find a way to bring that tone to the women who still rage about them? Maybe your tone is fine, but the audience needs to be adjusted? Like, forget writing for YA or kids. Write the books for adult women. I don’t know! I’m just brainstorming out loud!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I so understand, Cheryl. You and I are kindred spirits when it comes to children’s literature. Give me those classics or more recent classics like Number the Stars (Lois Lowry), Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia Maclachlan) or The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare) or even Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech).

      But yes, YA is in a strange place these days– that’s why you see so few agents (and almost no CBA agents) working with it.

      To contradict what I said in Lament #4: In the CBA we have a wonderful little niche of homeschool children. The books (middle grade historical fiction) I’ve written have been devoured by this demographic. I’ve never yet had a book go out of print and the books keep selling to a new crop of kids every year. It’s just finding the publisher who understands that and is willing to publish for the long term.

      • Wendy,

        I checked out your website. I would love to read those MG books you’ve written. They all sound amazing. I’ll have to give this some additional thought, as historical fiction for the middle grade market is where my concentration has been for my WIP. Though I like Jill’s idea, too, about potentially adjusting the audience.

        So much to think about and pray on.

        Thanks for your help.

  9. Larry says:

    The Artists’ Lament:

    1. What is the difference between writing a generic, mass-market book and selling shoes for a living? Both stink after a while and get tossed out with nary a single thought. Why put up with the hassle of the industry if it just comes down to a way to earn a paycheck? There are certainly less crazy ways to do so.

    2. Why is the industry so scared of trying anything new? What it has been doing so far certainly hasn’t been working. The “market isn’t there”, but it seems like the farmer putting the cart before the horse, and wondering why his or her wares never sell when they can never even bring the wares to the market in the first place.

    3. Why is the barista sighing whenever I go to refill my bottomless cup of coffee? What a winsome lass. Maybe I’ll throw some pennies in the tip jar if she’ll share with me the tale of woe and defeat that is her life. Hmmm….a story of a novelist and a barista, meeting as if by fate….

    • Jill Kemerer says:

      I happen to love mass-market books. I regularly buy the Harlequin Love Inspired line and mainstream historical romances. There is some really good writing in there, and I enjoy the way the authors find ways to keep them fresh. πŸ™‚

      • Larry says:

        Fresh you say, Jill?

        Those pine-tree air-freshners do wonders!…

        (Seriously though, there’s a few folks here who write or have WIPs which seem like good fits for the general market, and I do agree, they do show that one can write for the general market and still write good stories. )

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Larry, Larry Larry. . .

      You can be both artist and commercially viable. I’ve spent my life testing this. Before my storied career as an agent I made my living (and supported the living of several dozen people who worked for us) as an artist. I would often hear the lament of the “real” artists who only created one-of-a-kind pieces tearing down what I created– small limited editions. But guess what? My work is in collections and museums all around the world and I collected more awards than any other in my field. I was able to be true to my art and commercially viable.

      And the industry is not afraid of trying something new but they answer to shareholders and/or owners. They must be good stewards. If they try something new they are going to minimize risk by doing it with someone who is already a proven writer. In other words, if you are yet unpublished, short of a miracle, pushing the envelope is going to net you nothing but rejections.

      And about the barista, if you are at a Starbucks you’d better watch out. That may be my youngest daughter. . .

      • Ohhhh, Larry. You got THREE Larrys and a ‘watch out’!!
        Sending flowers might be an idea. Or chocolate.

      • Larry says:

        Indeed, I would say the industry should work on promoting the writers who are actually able to be true to their art and put beans on the table. The music and to a greater extent film industries do this; why the publishing industry does not, I cannot fathom.

        Isn’t the second point a bit contradictory? How can the industry be willing to try anything new……unless one is already proven and established? Which, I assume, means he or she had to become established in a genre a publisher would be willing to publish? And even if one is an established writer, how many publishers would balk at the thought of the writer switching genres, much less writing a full-on “artsy” novel?

        And what self-respecting Artist would go to a Starbucks? We only stick to non-chain coffeshops, where we may let the soothing sounds of a local college jazz-folk-country quartet drown the raging roar of our souls, and where the dim lighting allows us to weep for the future of Great Literature in private. πŸ™‚

        And Jennifer, I agree with sending chocolates! Maybe…..Canandian Chocolates? Like the type that could be won in a contest offered by a blogging community shall not be named? πŸ™‚

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        No, the point is not contradictory, Larry. When you talk about trying something new it’s not restricted to a new genre (is there really such a thing?). I was thinking if someone wanted to write a whole novel in, say, second person, it’s not going to be tried with a debut novelist. They are going to take a chance on a book like Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

    • Larry, I love your shoe analogy!

      • Larry says:

        Thanks! Was trying to go for a combination of legitimate gripes with the industry, and the sort of vapid “artiste” tone-of-voice which often makes it hard to take those legitimate complaints seriously.

        The Internet really needs “irony” as a font-option! (Not sure if it really worked, except for maybe with the third point of the “lament”).

  10. Yvonne Brown says:

    As always, you have great posts! This helped me see my writers group in a different way. Thank you!

    Yvonne Brown

  11. My lament is about marketing. Social media keeps changing and even if I do everything they say to build a platform in another year or so it will all be obsolete. It’s hard to write when blogging, using Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and reading other people’s helpful blogs (like this one) take up so much time.

  12. Katya says:

    Eye-opening!

  13. Barbara says:

    One thing that helped me immensely was attending a writer’s conference where mentors were available. Having someone look at my work that did not know me gave me a new perspective. Experienced writers, editors, and agents were all available for sessions. Since these talented people do not love me like my critique partners do, they were not influenced by my personality or how many times I’d already rewritten that chapter. Their comments were invaluable!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s what I love about good conferences. Mount Hermon pays to bring in a crack critique team who know writing and know the market. They sit in the hospitality center much of the day for drop-in consultations. Priceless.

  14. Jan Thompson says:

    Great post, Wendy! Nice to read about both sides of the coin.

    “I can never figure out why a writer would write a whole book– a gargantuan task– without ever researching the market.”

    Good reminder to “know thy market.” OTOH writers can pave the way for new markets as we’ve seen with some YA genres, and now with New Adult books being hot.

    “Do you have your own laments? Are you frustrated by the market realities?”

    As a reader, I lament the fact that I have to wait a whole year for the next new book from my favorite authors! One can only re-read a good novel so many times LOL. I’m glad, though, that book releases are staggered throughout the year. But as a writer, I know the work involved in producing print-ready mss, so I try to be patient…

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Oh Jan, I’m with you on the authors who only write one book a year. (Of course those books are worth the wait.) That’s why one of the best things is finding a new author you love and getting to download all their books to date and doing a one-author marathon.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        That’s a great idea! I need to do more of that. I did that only a few times in the past. I was hampered by my lack of strength to lug around heavy books LOL. However, my local library now allows its patrons to check out eBooks, so I can load up my iPad and do marathon readings. Or with eBooks at a bargain these days, I can just buy them.

        This happy reader thanks you for the marathon reminder!

  15. Wendy, thanks for being honest today! It is crucial for debut authors to study the CBA market BEFORE writing (not something I did before my first book, sad to say). Good point for wannabe crossover authors–“a book filled with references to faith and Jesus is not going to find a home in the general market any sooner than a book with graphic sex and violence would find a home in the Christian market.” KNOW.THY.AUDIENCE! And it also helps to know a bit about Christian pubbing trends, though those are apt to change with the latest bestseller.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Absolutely, Heather. And about that first book you wrote before understanding the market– tuck it away. If you are a successful author editors will be clamoring for anything you’ve written. πŸ™‚

  16. My lament is the list of expectations from the publishing industry. It’s hard to keep straight and prioritize all the things that must be done. This blog slathers on a thick, helpful dose of reality that I’m so thankful for.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      But don’t let those expectations sidetrack you. As much as we talk about marketing realities, you are the one who knows what you are called to write.

      If I had time I could tell such stories about authors who never should have been able to sell their manuscripts and now people the bestseller lists.

  17. JJ Landis says:

    Janet Ann Collins, I agree. I am currently trying to publish a memoir and I want to keep writing beyond that. I do blog and try to keep up with social media. But it seems like emerging authors must have a following, a platform, an audience before publishing a first book. Art and marketing and business all must mesh. It’s hard.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      But, Jj, don’t get too caught up in the platform frenzy. With a memoir, like with fiction, voice and story are much more important than platform.

  18. Nice to read views from both sides of the fence. I am still a bit confused about ‘genre.’ Perhaps foolishly, I just believe one should tell the story you want to tell and leave the genre to others.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Roger, think about genre as where your book will fit on the shelf in the bookstore.

      Understanding your genre answers the reader’s question, “I really like John Doe’s books, what is similar?”

  19. I like what James Scott Bell suggests, which is to treat writing like a business. That eliminates most of these laments based on market alone. If you want to make money writing, you have to write what the market demands. If you want to just write, then it doesn’t matter so much. If you want to self-publish as an ebook, quality at least matters, because your name is on it, but you might discover a small niche for what you do.

  20. I lament how many of the ongoing author laments are about how much their book/idea/project should have “The Industry” jump on board and support them – but “The Industry” couldn’t possibly support every author feeling this way.

    I’m continually amazed at how many people think they can do anything, and it will magically find financial support, whether from publishers while at a writers conference, or men’s ministry full time when at a men’s leadership conference.

    Work hard, improve at every available step, but no one owes you anything financially just because you want something.

    I enjoy how Jerry B and Dallas Jenkins compare being “called” to writing to being “called” to build a skyscraper – you still need to learn a lot to do it properly and well.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Rich, thanks for sharing that Jenkins’ analogy. Perfect. I may have to steal that (with attribution, of course).

  21. Kiersti says:

    This post first made me sad at first and but then “Ohhh–that makes sense,” as I got to the agent’s laments. πŸ™‚ Thanks for such an insightful post, Wendy! And to everyone for your wise, witty, and faith-and-reality-filled comments…I really enjoyed reading today. What a wonderful group this is. And lots of kindred spirits on classic children’s lit, I see!

  22. Jan Thompson says:

    Wendy, your second Twitter link is not working. It goes to a “Page Not Found” page. FYI.

  23. Lee says:

    A very wise man once told me to hold judgment until I hear at least two sides of the story. Thank you, Wendy, for two sides. I can only imagine other sides of these stories.

  24. I had no idea that size of debut book should not be so long…interesting!

    • donnie and doodle says:

      . . . I know some people who buy their books by the pound – and then use them for door stops when they have read them.

  25. donnie and doodle says:

    Lament Six:

    The publisher promised me a big (100 bag) advance on my, “Dog Tells All” expose’ book but in the end, I only got 50 bags of Kibble and it was the cheap kind. You know – the kind with lots of corn meal filler with no real nutritional value – nothing I could sink my teeth into. (KIND OF LIKE TWITTER)

    P.S. donnie made the disparaging comment about -Twitter -not me.

  26. What a great view of both sides of the coin!

    As someone who has not yet queried (still writing sample chapters), I already lament that all this work may not actually be seen by anyone because it’s so hard to get noticed! I lament that my query will be one of hundreds the week it is sent and that the chance of anyone actually asking to see the full proposal is tiny. But I’m trying to push my lamentations aside and have faith. πŸ™‚

  27. Kimberly Rae says:

    This is excellent! So much benefit comes from just hearing another perspective. I’m going to pass this on to my writing group today. Thank you!

  28. Just love this, Wendy! And I have to laugh–I get these Emails of Laments almost every day πŸ™‚ You did a great job addressing them!

  29. Sylvia Bambola says:

    Wendy, thank you for exploring this topic and the great feedback by others. Several weeks ago I had the privilege of being a speaker at a small writers converence hosted by my church which is also a conference center. The thing that struck me was how little these writers knew about the industry even though they had been part of a writer’s group for several years and how unrealistic their expectations were. I gently tried to impart reality without destroying their dreams. But I did end with how this long and difficult process of learning our craft, learning about the publishing world, dealing with rejection, etc. is just as important to God as our product (our book) becasue through it He will teach us patience, perseverence and humility. I love that about God. He never wastes anything. So it’s all good, it’s all important, even those years in the desert when nothing seems to be happening. Blessings!