Raising the Bar

Yesterday we talked about two doors in the publishing industry. New writers have an incredibly hard time getting into the second door, traditional publishing.

Most of the large traditional publishing houses have a limited number of slots available for new writers. More writers are lining up, hoping to get picked for one of those slots. As a result, the competition grows more intense and new writers have to search for ways to be better than others. This pushes the standards and expectations of new writers continually higher.

The bar gets raised higher and higher and higher, until it looks like we won't ever be able to make it over! Sometimes I wonder if a new writer has to be nearly perfect. Here are a few of the high standards I've noticed:

  • Perfect query letter: Thousands of articles and books are available to teach us how to write a winning letter. All it takes is a misspelled word, forgotten period, too much information or too little--and our query is easily deleted.
  • Perfect first page: How often are we told that an agent/editor won't read past the first page (or first paragraph) if the story doesn't hold their attention? It doesn't matter how good the rest of the book is, if we don't grab them from the start, we've lost them.
  • Perfect writing craft: No adverbs, no passive verbs, tight writing, words we're not suppose to use. . .new writers have to stick to the rules, even if the majority of best sellers don't.
  • Perfect ideas: We're expected to find that elusive, never-been-told story or idea. And then once we find it, we're expected to present it in a fresh, one-of-a-kind voice.

Have you noticed the standard bar for new writers getting higher? What are some of the expectations that frustrate you? I give you permission to rant today!

Tomorrow we'll talk about advantages that might help us jump over that bar.


  1. Hmmm, well I used to feel a little frustrated but now, from reading some debut novels, I'm not sure the perfection is needed. I'm beginning to think things are more about getting the right story to the right person on the right day. Which is actually a bit more frustrating because there's not much we can do about that. Does that make sense?
    I think we should do our best, and out of your list, I think the story idea and first page are definitely the MOST important.
    Great post Jody! I'm looking forward to your tips tomorrow. :-)

  2. Being from Maine, I admire Stephen King, even though I haven't read much of his work. On Writing is a wonderful resource; I return to it often. Naturally, King admonishes a newbie writer not use adverbs. I remember reading one chapter in Salem's Lot and came across, get this, eight or ten adverbs in just four pages--most dialogue tags. Big no, no.

    Oh, my. But what's a newbie to do? Just keep doing our best, I suppose.

  3. I'll probably get some "boos and hisses" here but I don't really know if I feel the bar has been raised.
    Maybe it just feels like the bar has been raised because of so much information coming out at us through the Internet. :)

  4. I guess my only "thing" with perfect first pages is that what I write is character-driven. I hope that the readers of my works try to get to know the characters a little before they jump ship.

    I agree, to keep reading a book I need to be engaged from the start...but I also give it awhile to see if the characters rub off on me.

    Hope I'm making sense.
    ~ Wendy

  5. I think the bar has been elevated a bit, and am happy for it. Although like Jennifer I have read my share of books recently that were less than stellar. But, I'm sure WHEN (optimism there) I get published there will be SOMEONE who thinks that about MY books too, so whatever:-) I think as writers it's our job to find where the bar is, do some strength (aka craft) building, and hurdle over that darn thing and beat it by a mile.

  6. Having a fresh story idea and the craft in place to tell is are mandatory. This can all be a little intimidating, can't it?

  7. Jessica: It really does help to know the right people and to catch them at a time when they're able to take new clients. But on the other hand, our MS has to shine in some way in order to perk their interest. Great thoughts, Jessica!!

    Rebecca: When you sell millions, then you can do whatever you want, right?

    Jennifer: Maybe it just feels like the standards are getting higher. We now have the availability to read agent blogs and Twitters about queries and what they like and don't like, so maybe we're just becoming more aware of the already high standards!

    Wendy: Not everything can start with the big shee-bang, especially character driven plots! You have even more of a challenge, then to get the perfect first page!

    Krista: If we love writing enough, then we just have to keep trying to make it over the jump, don't we?! I don't think any of us will ever be perfect, but we're certainly feeling the pressure to get our writing there!

    Katie: It is very intimidating and hopefully it just spurs us to keep working harder!

  8. I find all these points most interesting, Jody and fabulous commentors. I'm notorious for sitting on the fence, and I guess I'm one of those with this topic, too. I think luck, broadened information, and a lot of hard, blood-boiling work all play into this publication journey. But in the end, I keep coming back to "Story trumps all".

    But we must remember that "Story" encompasses all, too. So we need to be ranking high in the narrative, exposition and dialogue writing, as well as characterization, scene setting, conflict producing, rise and fall, etc. that all works to create the best story for our readers to connect to.

    We need to just keep at it, persevere, learn and apply, and trust God to open the needed doors when His time for us comes. I say that as much for me as for anyone else. I pray daily for His strength with respect to this very long arduous journey He has me on. This reminds me of a song. Something Big by John Waller. The chorus goes: "Something so big it's destined to fail without you, Lord. It's gonna fail without you, Lord. Something so great it takes a miracle to do. We, your children wanna do something big for you." My writing is that something big that I do for Him. So bring on the earthly challenges, because God can conquer all when He wants to!

    Hold onto Faith everyone. Do your best, keep doing, and let Him deal with opening the doors.

    There, I've preached enough, I think. More for me, than any of you, I'm know. I must have needed a good talking to this morning. Thanks for letting me rant here, Jody!

  9. I have no ranting just yet, as I haven't put anything out there to be rejected...I'm sure in a month or two I'll think the bar needs to drop completely. BUT right now I am hopeful and optimistic that I have an original story and SOMEONE will hopefully be interested... (but that's today...might be different after my first 25 rejections! LOL)

  10. Oh, yes! Permission to rant! You are queen for the day to allow us this!!!

    I am frustrated by what i perceive as mixed messages. One agent likes the straigtforward approach, nothing cute. Another wants catchy, snappy hooks on the queries and one pages.

    We have to constantly (oh, an adverb! Horrors!!!) change our query letter, one page and pitch to suit each agent or editor or publisher. Arrrggggghhhhh!!

    I just love to write, but not all the doo-doo i must do to get my writing read! There! That feels better!!!

  11. I think an expectation where the bar has been raised is platform. MFA's seem attractive, as do credits with major publications, and seem to open doors. The pros still say just write a great story, that's all that is necessary, but I think platform is gaining in importance too.

  12. Eileen: Thanks for your encouragement! And no, you weren't preaching to the choir--we all need to be reminded that His push will get us over the high bar. Without His strength, we'll keep landing short!

    Marybeth: I'm learning a lot as I keep jumping! And since you're already up on what agents expect, I'm you're further ahead than I was when I first started querying!

    Jeanette: I agree! If we could just write! *sigh* And not have to deal with jumping through the hoops! But, thankfully, all the work only helps build our skills and professionalism (and character too)!

    Joanne: Platform is definitely growing in importance, even for fiction writers! It's one more area where we're having to compete with each other.

  13. I think the bar is being raised higher but I don't think it's all necessarily about good writing. I believe it's more like the right place at the right time. Not that I am saying it's all luck or a matter of chance, just that you have to know who you're querying and know what they like. You have to know your market and then present your manuscript in the right way and the right time.

    Since you're giving us permission to rant today :) I just want to say that it's not fair we have to have a platform and help market our work and ourselves! We should be able to wear one hat: writer. It's just not fair! Oh, I feel better now. Thanks.

  14. The thing that scares me is the idea that the numbers from your first book sales affect whether or not you will be able to get your second book published. There doesn't seem to be as much room for a writer to grow throughout his or her lifetime. I've often dreamed of the relationship where agent and author develop together to build a lifelong career, but that doesn't seem to work anymore. It's no one's fault, but it's sad.

  15. I found myself nodding my head and agree with alot that's been said. The bar does seem to be higher...but by whose standards? Every agent...every editor has different perspectives. I agree with Eileen when it comes to the story. I think perfection flies out the door if an Ed/Agent is knocked over by the writer's voice and premise. That could also be construed as being at the right place and time for that particular person reading.

  16. Cindy: I like your rant! It doesn't seem fair that we have market our books. But I also look at my writing career as a small business kind of like my husband's private practice. He gets to spend part of the time doing what he really loves--counseling, but he has to do everything else too, marketing, promotion, business, etc.

    Davin: Excellent point! If our first book doesn't bring in the sales, is it the kiss of death to an author's career? Intersting question to ponder! I think it would be really hard to garner anyone's attention after a bad first sale, even if the next book is better. I guess that's why we have to be nearly perfect with our first!

    Chelle: I guess we just have to keep digging deeper to find the perfect story that will finally attract attention!

  17. I liked your analogy, because it immediately took me to my son's 8th grade High Jump at the District Meet. He was 6'3" in 8th grade and was in the lead. He had won the jump at 5'11", but kept going to beat the district record. Imagine jumping 3" below your own height level. He did and still holds the district record. I think we may sometimes be dismayed at the ever rising bar, but determination, practice, and gifting from God (and his orchestrating the timing!) will help us to clear the bar and reach our goals. We need to do what we do, do our very best,and be persistent and God will handle the rest. Thanks for a great post, Jody!

  18. I don't know if the expectations are getting higher, or if they have always been high. I don't know if any of the expectations really frustrate me, although I do find all of them challenging.

  19. This isn't an expectation but still was a bit frustrating ... although quite humorous as well. An editor (that I know personally) finally sent me, after 3 submissions of material for the same book, a letter. I still don't know if it was an acceptance letter or a rejection letter, since I received someone else's rejection letter in my envelope, and I assume they received mine. I never responded back to him. I figured if he was giving me a green light he'd get in touch with me again.

  20. Sherrinda: 6'3" in 8th grade? That is one tall boy!! Wow! How cool to hold the record! But what an awesome example that we need to have a lot of things working for us to make that jump, not the least is a God-given talent!

    Kate: They are challenging for sure, but hopefully spur us on!

    Warren: That story is too funny! Hopefully the other person didn't accidentally receive your acceptance letter! I'm not sure that you should assume he'd get back to you. If he's as busy as most editors are, perhaps he's still waiting for you to contact him, thinking "If he's serious enough, he'll get back to me." Only you know for sure, but it might be worth a follow up, using the mixed up letter as an excuse!

  21. I wore myself out trying to follow all the "rules." So, I lightened up. I follow any good advice I can, but I still use some adverbs and I use "to be" verbs when my characters are introspective.

    Some of this industry is a matter of taste; some of it is who you know; but all of it involves hard work. I try not to think about the thousands of writers vying for the same spot I want.

    Thanks for another great post!

  22. I don't have anything to add, but wanted to say this was another great post!

    Lynnette Labelle

  23. Good point. I know one of his employees a bit better so I may give a call today. Thanks.

  24. It's not so much the higher standards that frustrate me, because I can do my best to meet those like any other - it's those who swoop in (like celebrities) and take spots, despite meeting each of those standars. Harumph!

  25. Jill: You rebel you! I agree, it is a matter of taste and is so subjective; many times we're trying to jump through hoops to please everyone!

    Lynette: Thanks for your encouragement!

    Warren: It never hurts to follow up in a professional way! Let us know how it goes!

    Janna: That is frustrating when we've been waiting in line so long and someone flashy comes along and can walk right in the door without any waiting!

  26. I CAN'T BE PERFECT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Okay, rant over.

  27. Well stated rants/observations! I agree with Chelle - being in the right place at the right time seems to be the ticket, and so far, I haven't been there.

    I am not sure if the bar is higher or the path TO the bar is just so much more crowded that fewer people get to the bar at all (kind of like Jennifer said...)

  28. Lady Glamis: I'm yelling with you!!! As hard as I try to be perfect, I just know I'm not!

    Bekah: I'm so glad you're chiming in and not just lurking! I think being in the right place at the right time is key, but what makes us stand out is that we also have that perfect pitch, perfect story/idea, and nearly perfect craft. So, in other words it just plain hard! I like the reminder today that we ultimately need God's push to get us over the top!

  29. I am not sure if the bar is getting higher or if we are just able to receive more information on the markets via the internet so it seems that way. On the otherhand, due to the internet, there are more options available for the writer as more publishing companies become known. Sometimes I think it is just a matter of your manuscript being on the right desk at the right time and a story the market is wanting. Regardless, the wait and rejections can be so frustrating.

  30. Hi Amy,
    Thanks for stopping by and adding your input today! Quite a few have said the same thing about our manuscript being in front of the right person at the right time! Perhaps it is less about the perfect manuscript and more about having the right connections? Not sure! But I agree, the wait and rejections are very wearisome!

  31. You are so right! We need to be perfect, but not too perfect. ANd we need to be that beyond perfection thing at the exact moment the light shines for us. It's a lot like catching smoke.
    Best of luck to you!

  32. It's kinda stinky in a way -- much higher standards without any added incentives. :)

    Come enter my writing contest if ya wanna.

    Word ver: sated (like the publishing industry?)

  33. Hi Judith: Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I like the way you put it, needing to be beyond perfection at the time the light shines on us! Nice summary!!

    Angie: I will have to go check out your contest!!


© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!