writer pyramidAt a writing conference I heard a speaker talk about a writer pyramid. I don’t recall who or where it was, or all the details, so the following is something between a recreation and reinvention with apologies to whomever suggested the original concept. For the record, when I say “published” below I’m assuming published by a traditional publisher. Self-publishing is somewhat different so should be considered separately, though many of the same principles do apply. So it begins…

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a writer, and many have “a novel in me” that begs to come out. But the act of writing is like a pyramid, with a twist.

Level I

At the bottom of the pyramid is a huge base expanse of people who say they want to write, but never actually write anything. They talk to their friends about writing. They mention writing to coworkers. Their family knows they have that great American novel just boiling over in their brain. But they never actually write it. Most of the time they say they are busy with real life – their family, work, and all the rest of the things that make up our days and nights. So they feel they can be a writer, if they could only find the time. At best they get a page or two down on paper, but mostly their writing is in their mind.

This group of non-writing “writers” make up most of the people who think they can write. But they don’t ever write. They aren’t writers. There is nothing wrong with that. We all have priorities and busy lives, but if you don’t write anything substantive you can’t call yourself a writer. At least, not yet.

Level II

Moving up a step, the second level of the pyramid contains those who manage to write enough to be considered writing. They may get several chapters of a book, or even an entire first draft of a novel. They may write tens of thousands, 100,000, even 200,000 or more words. This is fantastic, they think; “I’m a writer!” But then they stick the manuscript in a drawer and never show it to anyone. These folks are writers, but not really. They’ve created a draft, or a partial draft, but they haven’t done the necessary editing and structuring to ensure they have a good book. There is a possibility it is wonderful, but the likelihood is that it isn’t. Rarely do famous writers become famous by turning in their first draft; most edited the life into their books. None of them became famous by sticking their first draft in a drawer and never showing it to anyone. And no, showing it to your spouse doesn’t count either, not if it goes back into the drawer afterwards and never sees the light at the end of a publisher’s pen.

Level III

The third level up are those who submitted their book to a publisher or an agent. Most of these writers get rejected. Are they writers? Yes, but unpublished writers. Their writing may be terrible, or it might be great. [J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before some editor took a chance.] If your book is terrible, that may become obvious after you’ve submitted it to dozens of agents and/or publishers. You may give up writing and pursue something you’re better at. Or, and this is a big or, you can keep submitting it to other agents or publishers. Maybe you’ll get some feedback to help you make the story better. Maybe you’ll find an editor to help improve the writing style. Maybe it isn’t the book as much as it’s the quality of your query letter. Each case is different, but rejection is the norm, so you better get used to it.

The point is that you’ve written a book. It’s time to swallow your pride, toss the rejections in a drawer (they make for a great laugh if your book is finally published and sells millions), and find a way to make your book better. Or write a different book. Or work harder to find the right publisher. Rejections don’t stop you from being a writer, not writing does.

Level IV

The fourth level of the pyramid is populated by published authors. These are writers whose books have actually been published by a traditional press and can be found in stores and online booksellers like Amazon, Alibris, and others. Congratulations, you’re published!

Now for the reality check. You probably won’t get rich. Very few published books ever make back their advance on royalties, assuming you got an advance in the first place. One estimate says the average nonfiction book in the U.S. sells less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. For fiction, a few thousand copies sold is doing great. Overall, you have less than a 1% chance of even getting stocked in a bookstore shelf. All of this is highly variable depending on a myriad of factors. It’s also relative, of course, because most authors are happy that they got their book published even if they don’t have to hire accountants to handle the influx of royalties, or a publicist to handle media and speaking requests. Though, admit it, those would be nice too.

The Twist

The final level is actually off the pyramid. Think of it as a roulette wheel balanced on the top point. These are the books that become runaway best sellers. As the roulette wheel analogy suggests, there is no way to predict what book will find its way up here. Certainly it isn’t simply a matter of writing quality, as the phenomenal sales of 50 Shades of Grey can attest. Outside of a handful of perennial bestselling authors, it’s anyone’s guess as to what makes a book take off with the public. Sometimes good books go great (Harry Potter) and sometimes good books fall into oblivion while something second-rate goes viral. More than any other factor, it’s luck. Or timing. Or magic dust.

So where does this leave you, the future author of the next great novel?

First and foremost, it leaves you sitting in front of your computer, or if you’re a traditionalist, with a pad and pen. And writing. And writing some more. Once you’re through writing, it leaves you editing. Then writing more and editing more. Sorry, but the only way to be a writer is to write. A lot. And edit. A lot.

Next you must show it to someone in the publishing business. In most cases you’re going to need an agent, so pick up a copy of the most recent Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and get looking. Also do some research on how to write a query, which is a one-page letter you’ll use to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Read as much as you can, because reading both increases your ability to write and gives you insights into such mundane things as sentence structure, plot twists, and character development.

Then write some more. Rinse and repeat.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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