Friday, February 21, 2014

The JK Rowling Excuse - the Danger of Success Stories

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel this way before. I'm a writer. Heck, I live for fantasies.

Back when I was querying my YA Epic Fantasy (since then, I've put that manuscript aside), I was absolutely torn apart with all these fantasies I had for my work.

It was, originally, about 40k words over the standard limit for the genre. Also, it had not one, but two prologues (both of which, as I later understood, weren't working). But the thing was, for months, I just wouldn't believe that it'd hinder me from getting published.

I kept thinking that I'd be like JK Rowling. I'd been reading (and I still do read) success stories of authors like Rowling, like Tolkien, like Margaret Mitchell.

Rowling: published an over-long children's novel which became the best selling series of all time. Tolkien: originally, his trilogy was a single, 500k novel which his publishers split up. Mitchell: her novel, deemed to be so freaking good (and also a debut novel), was overpriced simply because the publisher believed if it was that good, it'd sell.

I'd been drinking in all the exceptions to the rules of publishing. I thirsted for them, searched for them, and I think it was because I wanted some sort of validation that my two prologues and over-long book had a chance. That everyone (everyone) that gave me smart advice were wrong, that I'd prove them all wrong.

Well, I got 67 query rejections in a row. Not a single request. (And appropriately so).

You see, as hard as it might seem to take the hard advice, it'll probably help you more than any other advice. It's weird but it's true: the advice that hurts the most, the advice that makes you search for articles online to prove it wrong, the advice that makes you sad...that's the advice you probably need to follow. That's my acid test as to whether a harsh criticism has merit or not.

(Another way, possibly the best way to tell whether you are the exception or not, is to get trusted and honest critique partners to give you feedback. They'll tell you if your rule-breaking is working or not.)

Deep down, we all know the truth of our own novels. We know how successful they can be and we know what possibly can burden its potential. But we don't want to go through the work of lifting those burdens. Writing a book, polishing it, revising it...that's all hard enough. Why go through more work?

And because of that attitude, we refuse to cut out that scene we love so much because JK Rowling had a similar scene in her novel. We refuse to cut our words because Tolkien wrote such a long masterpiece and his was a debut. We refuse. How many times do we hear, "But JK Rowling did it!!! She did it, and sold so many books, so if I do it, I'll sell a ton as well! You all just don't understand."

But very few of us are at the level that Rowling and Tolkien are/were. (If you want to talk about how 'lucky' Rowling was, know that she spent almost a decade before publishing the first Harry Potter simply building up the world, plotting, and working hard on the novels. Almost a decade. And still, due to her editor, she had to cut many scenes from her first novel to make it more of a 'publishable' length.) Those that are on that level know who they are. Those that think they are at that level, frankly, probably are very, very far away. I think the best place is to be in the middle: confident about our abilities, but not foolish enough to believe that publishing doesn't have rules and that our 700k literary fiction debut will ever be picked up.

I write this knowing that if someone read this, then went out and sold their 700k lit fic debut, they might think about this post and snicker. And, frankly, I feel foolish writing this post just thinking about that! But for every one person that will sell a 700k, there are hundreds of others that'll have to deal with not being the exception to the rule. The sad thing is, many, many people think they are the exception, and thus they don't take critiques to heart, they don't heed advice, and they query with a bad manuscript foolishly hoping that they'll be a NYT bestseller. There is probably nothing that has helped me more in my quest for publication than the feedback of my writing friends.

I'm one of those hundreds that have to deal with not being a major exception (I add 'major' because simply finishing a book is an exception as well). After all, we can't all be exceptions.

You know what they say: you got to learn (and live by) the rules before you can break them. And realizing that we all can't be exceptions can help us get past our own insecurities and (possibly) become the exception and break the rules.

Do you think 'The JK Rowling Excuse' is dangerous?


  1. This post reminds me of a great scene in that movie "He's Just Not That Into You" where one of the characters has this light bulb moment (about dating): "We're the RULE. No the exception, the RULE." Meaning, all the stories we hear - like the JK Rowlings, etc, are the exceptions, but the rule is the rest of us. And it's probably best we figure out how to operate on the thin line between believing in ourselves, but not expecting to be the one who can successfully break a lot of "rules".
    And even saying that, like you said in your post, I feel foolish, because how can we succeed if we don't have faith in ourselves and our work? But as much as I believe in idealism, I also believe in pragmatism: do the work in a way that will get you noticed, then you can break the rules!!!

    1. Gah. I said RowlingS. And I know better. Rowling. FACEPALM

  2. Oh my gosh, that's exactly how I was when I queried my first novel. Writers need to stop thinking 'If it can happen for so and so, why not me?' You're setting yourself up for heartbreak. Does that mean you give up? Does that mean dreaming is bad? No. Just have realistic expectations. And I honestly don't think most writers lower them until after they've dealt with rejection, it's a healthy dose of reality. But if you love writing, nothing will stop you and you'll keep at it.

  3. I feel like that less and less as I continue to write. After you continue to get rejection after rejection after rejection, that little glimpse of hope you had in your mind of making it big starts to dwindle. By the time I do get an agent/book deal, I'll probably just be stunned that even one person liked my work.

    Really, though, I never want to be as famous as J.K. Rowling. Having that many people look up to you and your writing is way too much pressure. You'd basically be trading one set of problems for another.

    Wow, that was depressing wasn't it? Um...puppies and kittens and rainbows!

  4. A lesson I'm learning too well. I, too, don't want to be J.K. Rowling successful (the money'd be nice, I won't lie, but the fame, the limelight, not so much). I just want to be able to share my stories and touch people's hearts with them. The rejections do hurt, so very much that sometimes it's hard to write another word, but I can't stop. I love creating stories and hopefully, one day, I'll have my very own success tale. Not the kind nightmares bring, but the kind that helps me be able to live comfortably and do what I love to do.

  5. Most of us have to go through the miserable times of rejection while we figure out the game. I sure did!

  6. I learned pretty quickly that I may not be the exception. It hurts, but it helps.

  7. As much as I do agree with that, I think there's also a reverse, where successful published writers change or lower the quality of their writing and use their own success as a excuse-crutch for doing so. But, yes, they're the exception and we unpublished appear to be the rule.