Pub Rants

Dancing With The Stars Analogy

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STATUS: Today was my final round of meetings. I’m taking tomorrow off and then heading back to Denver.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MAD WORLD by Gary Jules with Michael Andrews
(I rather like this remake of an old Tears For Fears song.)

When I was at the Backspace Conference last week, a fellow agent made an analogy that I thought was rather apt. Here’s my lame attempt to paraphrase the thought.

For all other forms of art, say being a dancer or a painter or a musician, the general public rather believes that it takes years of practice to master the art form. In fact, the artist might do an apprenticeship, take classes, study under a master, or have many practice tries that are then thrown out.

People, in general, don’t actually believe that if they take one tango class, they are ready for Dancing with the Stars.

But for whatever reason, this same viewpoint doesn’t apply when it comes to writing novels. Lots of aspiring writers really do think they can hammer out a first novel without studying the art form, without participating in a critique group, without learning the mechanics and boom, get a publishing contract. Get a big advance. Become a bestseller.

Now I know that my blog readers don’t think this way—because you read this blog as well as other industry blogs. You guys are smart enough to know otherwise but I’d say that for at least 50% of the queries we receive, the writers contacting us did very little to master the craft of writing. In fact, they probably didn’t even bother researching elements of the biz.

And yet they think they are ready for Dancing With The Stars. They get angry with agents who they perceive as impeding their success because we aren’t recognizing their talent. And these same writers make it that much harder for you savvy people to be heard through the noise.

So my little rant for the day.

51 Responses

  1. Carrie said:

    Hey, I just today used a similar So You Think You Can Dance analogy on another agent’s blog!

    There ARE people who watch a whole season of the show (and my god, the amount of talent those dancers have is heart-stopping), and then somehow manage to show up at the auditions, thinking they are ready. I just don’t get it. But, since they’re delusional, I don’t suppose they’re going to learn anything from us talking about how off-base they really are. Sigh.

  2. Myra said:

    I like the dance analogy, love it actually, but think it works better with So You Think You Can Dance since the Dancing With the Stars peeps haven’t prepared for a lifetime(ummm…Steve Guttenberg?). A solid base in the art form allows for an authenticity when it pours out, either onto the stage or onto the page.

    No base at all has a tendency to make it…ugly.

  3. MeganRebekah said:

    I hate to tell you, but my mother read my novel and she said that it’s the best book ever written. Her exact quote was “this is even better than the Bible”.

    So if a diehard Christian woman disses the Bible because my book is so amazingly awesome, than obviously I don’t need extra work or research.

    And once my novel has been on the NYT Bestseller list for 20 weeks straight, I plan on moving to New York to work on Broadway. Not as an actor of course, but as the director.

    (I hope it was obvious that I’m J/K. About the director thing anyway – I’m going to be the star of the show) 🙂

  4. Liana Brooks said:

    I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that it’s harder to gauge your progress with writing than it is with other art forms.

    With a piece of pottery you either have a cup or a blob. There isn’t much in between (and I always have a blob).

    With dancing you can measure progress with callouses and endurance and high kicks.

    With running you can measure distance.

    But with writing… it’s harder to find some hard limit to use for comparison. Number of words written doesn’t work. Neither does number of words deleted. You can’t go by the number of stories or full novels written. You can’t even go by the number of rejection slips.

    As a young and impatient author it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that because it isn’t easy to measure progress that there is no progress to be measured. OR to believe that since you’ve put in X amount of time you are suddenly ready for publication.

  5. Scribe said:

    Far be it from me to disagree with a good rant, but there are strong precedents in both the writing and entertainment world for people doing well with little or no prior experience. The two most obvious examples are Stephanie Meyer and Susan Boyle. Granted, both are rarities, but it’s in our nature to assume that if just one person can do it, so can we.

  6. wellreadrabbit said:

    Unfortunately I think there are those that are clueless about their level of ‘readiness’ in many fields. We see them each year in the auditions for ‘Idol’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.

    At least that makes for good TV (and a bit of laugh, if you have that sort of sense of humour) but poor agents have to deal with it each day, alone, as it pours into their inbox!


  7. Jamie Ford said:

    Another way of looking at it would be a person sitting down at the piano for the first time and expecting to play Mozart. Then, when they can’t, they decide they have no talent and give up.

    Writing is the same way. You have to sit down and plink away at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and work your way up…

    Some are ahead of the curve talent-wise, and others are more creative, but either way, it takes more than a little practice.

    Okay, off to work on my Tango…

  8. Anonymous said:

    You are absolutely right. And what makes this continue is that the debut novel is often not the writer’s first attempt at a manuscript.

    10,000 hours…. but no one wants to put in the work.

  9. Cory said:

    Definitely a solid analogy. That kind of behaviour si frighteningly common.

    From an artist’s perspective, though, I have to point out that the common sense of someone having studied for years doesn’t always apply to what people think of painters. I can’t count the number of times people have gone, “Oh, I wish I could draw!” upon seeing my art; invariably, my response is, “Have you tried?” It honestly doesn’t occur to many people that every single artist’s work was just as crappy as every one else’s when they started out. It’s not an inborn skill, people.

    The difference between writing and art seems to be that with art, most people have a basic idea of what’s decent and what isn’t (at least in terms of concrete figurative art), and with writing, people… well, don’t, because so many think being able to string a sentence together is all there is to it.

    I think, in that way, writing is far more abstract than many other forms of art: it’s not about the individual sentences, but about the bigger picture they form. You can argue that the same is true for other forms of art – eg. movements in dancing, brush strokes in painting – but it’s still a lot easier to see the overall bigger picture than with writing, making it easier for laymen to determine whether something is any good.

  10. Courtney Milan said:

    I don’t think Susan Boyle is an appropriate choice of someone with little to no experience. She has been practicing her craft for years and years. She’s been auditioning and trying out for ages, and she’s kept singing. She just never got a break until recently. She is precisely the person who writes twelve books, accrues twenty thousand rejections, and keeps going.

    One of the things about writing a novel is that there are things you can do that give you a better shot at writing a novel that are not precisely writing a novel itself–just like figure skaters will often learn ballet, or someone who is really good at tango will pick up swing without having to start from the basics. There are cognate skills.

    If you’re spending a lot of time writing and reading, you’re learning elements of the craft of writing. Even if you aren’t writing novels, you’re still learning things that are applicable to the novel-writing field. And that’s why I don’t think you can necessarily diss people like Stephenie Meyer and say she didn’t have a lot of experience. I’m going to guess that Meyer was a big reader and writer before she started writing Twilight–and the fact that Twilight turned out as it did is testament to natural skill, acquired talents and–let’s face it–being in the right place at the right time.

    What you can’t do is never read, never write, and then suddenly think “I’m going to write a novel” and set pen to paper and expect magic to happen.

  11. loveskidlit said:

    Stephenie [sic] Meyer does have an English degree. I realize that not every English major does a writer make, but for those with a bug for creative writing it is studying the craft!

  12. DebraLSchubert said:

    Ditto what Courtney said. Sorry that you have to spend your time weeding through, well, the weeds. I imagine finding the rare, beautifully formed rose lurking in the muck makes all the dirty work worthwhile.;-)

  13. behlerblog said:

    Kristin, bless you for this post. Not only do many authors believe “if they write it, they will come,” but many are also under the impression that they don’t have to be well read.

    I had a submission that was very close to Grisham’s The Rainmaker. When I asked the author about it, his reply was, “Who’s Grisham?” Either he thought I was an idiot, or he lives under a well-insulated rock.

  14. JStantonChandler said:

    Great analogy!

    I’ll never understand why so many people think it’s so easy to write a novel. I’ve sadly had someone close to me tell me that writing is not really work. All I could do was grit my teeth and bite back the rant.

    Have a great weekend!

  15. Anonymous said:

    Actually, I’m not buying this, Agent K. You don’t even have to write a book anymore to get a book contract. Just ask the web site LOLcats. Or just be a hero like the guy who landed the plane in the Hudson or give birth to eight babies at once. Or the bloggers who have “blooks” coming out, people who got book contracts because they have a popular blog.

  16. M. Dunham said:

    That’s a great comparison. People don’t always realize the incredible amounts of work that go into a published work, and that the final result they see is the constant, tireless effort of the author and the industry side as well.

  17. Matilda McCloud said:

    I’ve been taking piano lessons for 15 years. I have some innate musical ability and I enjoy playing, but I’m still at the intermediate level and always will be. It’s the same with singing. I’ve been singing in choirs my whole life, but am never the featured soloist, and never expect to be.

    The problem with writing is that it’s difficult to know where I stand. I know I’m not a beginner. Other than that, I don’t have a clue. It’s not as easy to gauge writing skill or talent as it is skills in some of the other arts.

  18. Anonymous said:

    I think the difference is that with other art forms the success is more easily measured.

    If you don’t hit the correct pivot or turn on a dance floor, a judge can tell you that and you can work on it — it’s solid, and concrete. It gives you a starting place to improve.

    But writing is subjective. It isn’t concrete, once the basics are learned there often IS no correct or incorrect, because it’s a matter of opinion. Five dance instructors may be able to pinpoint if your not swiveling your hips enough during a paso doble, but aside from grammar issues, writing has no such measure — how can you measure voice? It’s subjective.

    Because people pound it into your head that you will be endlessly rejected as a writer, “rejection” per se, isn’t really an indication of not having talent.

    When you have Janet Reid (actually, any agent, not just her) freely saying query widley, writers often don’t stop to think that maybe their book sucks. Other writers in their critique group aren’t going to tell them to give up, because then they’d have to face their own fear that maybe THEY aren’t good enough either.

    And sorry, but most writers DO fantisize of having a best-seller or at least a widely read book. Why wouldn’t they? Why would a writer spend a year working on a book if they didn’t think it had a chance? Don’t pretty much all agents dream about having that best-selling author, that JK or Steph M? Then why do writers get knocked all the time for daring to dream?

    I recently queried an agent that was looking for a “Steph Meyer” type writer. That made me laugh. Uh, Steph M probably didn’t KNOW she was a Steph M type writer when she was querying. I queried anyway, with a high-concept book. No reply. Not even a form reject. I’m not implying that Kristin is one of these agents, but, really, for every writer out there that doesn’t want to “work” there is an agent to match them. Agents that think they have a right to never respond to queires, partials, or even send a form reject, but want a prepackaged bestselling author to fall in their lap with a six figure book deal. Just sayin’.

  19. Anonymous said:

    Last Anon–how true! I’m a pubbed writer and getting my fair share of requests w/ a few close calls…But no one told me exactly why the book wasn’t quite right for them–until a young, energetic agent explained why she passed did I see the novel in a new light. Now I know exactly how to fix it–and give it a fresh twist. Hooray for savvy agents and second chances!

  20. Anonymous said:

    Anonymous is correct in pointing out that there are too many agents who don’t want to work anymore. They’re looking for their fiction via Google searches for successful self-pubbed books and podcasts and offering contracts (betcha those authors haven’t put in their 10,000hours yet!) And let me guess…do y’all actually think you should get your full 15% for representing a book you only have to do half the work on now because the author has already made it a *demonstrated* success?

  21. AC Gaughen said:

    I think the other problem is that too many writers face a disconnect between their mind and other people’s perception. People write clunky dialogue or heavy handed plot and look at the work of excellent writers and think they’ve written something of equal quality. A lot of new writers don’t realize that the way they think their writing sounds isn’t the way other perceive it.

    And of course, this is negatively reinforced when the first people you show it to, typically dutiful family members, gush over it (shockingly, despite the fact you said “Be honest!”).

    On the other hand, writing is something most people do every day in some form (or at least, using language to their advantage); more so than painting, music, or any other creative art. I think there is greater potential for people to become great writers because of it, but only if they can move past their own perception and look at their writing (somewhat) objectively.

    There’s my two cents!

  22. Anonymous said:

    Anon 9:33 — I recently had an agent give me notes and tell me I could resubmit if I wanted to if I wanted to do a rewrite. Hooray! She was the first to offer ANY feedback after FOUR other agents requested and read fulls.

    Agent X requests a partial. Then a full. They read you the riot act about not accepting another offer unless they also have a chance to offer if they want the ms. Fair enough. You wait five months. Get a form reject. Not even the title of the ms mentioned. So, yeah, there certainly are writers that don’t get the amount of work involved in learning a craft, and there are also agents who don’t get how hard it is for a writer to learn their craft either, or they wouldn’t form reject requested fulls after keeping them for five months.

    Amazing in this industry that agents never seem to point that accusatory finger at themselves. Pot to kettle.

  23. Anonymous said:

    Anon and the others–exactly right! One agent passed after 7 months w/out any feedback, despite a solid editorial background–but only after I told them I was “discussing representation” w/ an agent (true).

    This agent didn’t tell me how to fix it, but why it didn’t quite work for her–I offered to revise and resubmit and she was quite receptive.

    What a difference it makes to get actual, useful feedback from a pro–now I’m fired up! If only agents would see how it would benefit them as well to give an almost-right ms. a second chance.

  24. karen wester newton said:

    I think it’s tempting to assume that a first effort at writing a novel will be a raging success for two reasons. First, sometimes it happens (Stephanie Meyer was by no means the first to hit it big with a first book). Second, unlike playing a musical instrument or dancing, we all learn to write– to put words together into sentences– so it’s tempting to assume we can do it well enough to sell a book. But I think the folks who get mad or even combative when it doesn’t happen (as opposed to those who are merely crushed) are the same folks who are really surprised that they didn’t get a job because obviously they were the best qualified for it. Or were incensed that a cop gave them a ticket because everyone speeds. Some people just have an inflated sense of their own importance. Life is a constant disappointment for them as a consequence.

  25. Miss Mabel said:

    Re the Steph Meyer thing: My understanding is that she wrote when she was younger, and stopped writing for years when she had children.

    Re the original post: YES YES YES YES YES!!! This drives me crazy! More so when people who know me say this (that is, people who know I’ve been working on my craft for 20 years.)

    And I am so tired of people who say Harlequins and Dragonlance books are so bad, they could sit down and write one and get published. Or that the books are written by computers, or by committees.

    I’m less annoyed when strangers at my bookstore talk like this–I just bring them to the writing/publishing section. 🙂

  26. writeidea said:

    So very true. After I came back from Buenos Aires (where I tango danced my happy heart away), I compared great writers to great leads.

  27. Anonymous said:

    Writing a novel is one thing. Selling one is quite another.

    Most people get frustrated enough after the first attempt doesn’t sell that they give up. Write a whole ‘nother one now? On spec?! Forget it, there are easier ways to make money.

    Also, most people who try writing a novel haven’t read nearly enough of them to know what’s good or not. They say that your first half-million words or so are going to be crap, and that you have to write through them in order to reach your full potential. Well, I think that if you have to write 500,000 words, you’ve got to read like a billion words.

    So for the writers who hven’t been reading for the fun of it since they were kids, it’s goiong to be unlikely that they can easily write a commercially viable novel.

  28. mnemosyne's afterthought said:

    Acting, directing, fine art, and interior design are other art forms that suffer from a vast majority of people believing that they need little to no training or practice or sheer time and hard work put in to master the said art.

  29. Anonymous said:

    Let us also not forget that not all published authors are great writers, either. And so, although the advice that aspiring writers should read a lot of novels is excellent, it’s also a good idea to read novels that are well-written, not just the ones that are currently most popular. It’s important to remember that much of this business runs on popularity, and popularity is a fool’s game. This is MY rant for today.

  30. David Jace said:

    OH, but have you forgotten? Americans spend a minimum of TWELVE YEARS studying writing!! If I spent 12 years studying piano or painting, I should be at least capable of performing, right?

    And, think about it, in the American public’s mind, that is true. They speak the language all the time, and they read, and they studying writing and literature and stuff for 12 years in school. They didn’t study all these other things year after year, so writing makes sense to them. Sadly, they don’t notice that most of them still can’t pass a basic skills test!

    Still, this is a great analogy.

  31. lake said:

    hi you have an interesting blog here. I agree that good things do take time to develop. I have written a musical childrens play, 2 acts set over a hundred years ago, about stowaway children coming to america called “freedom and potatoes”
    ….and a short story about grandpa possibly becoming magical, “the mandalay skull”.
    Along with a dozen more short western stories “colorado henry”
    and other titles along with a modern story in 3 parts “lake private eye” “lake bounty hunter” and “Lake on the run” …..

    ….It does take time to develop writing thats decent. Now, that my thoughts have turned to possibly getting published it’s like a whole new world. It seems impossible to sell a book of western stories, how would I get an agent to look at the entire body of work? Anyway I’ll leave you with one of my poems, its about a woman in greece who loves and misses someone she never met. (online romance)

    “to be friends”
    embracing safety
    she turns
    the clock again
    embracing love
    she yearns
    for pretend
    embracing feelings
    she burns
    without end
    embracing hope
    she learns
    to be friends

  32. K J Gillenwater said:

    All you have to do is watch the weirdos and losers who come to try out for “American Idol” to see that this is not true. There are ‘artists’ who believe they are truly gifted, selling their homemade junk at every arts & crafts fair they ca find. I don’t watch the show, but I believe there are also ‘dancers’ who show up for “So You Think You Can Dance” believing they are just like Barishnykov.

    Many people want to believe they are creative and talented enough to be ‘famous’ in any given art form. But as we all know, many are not.

  33. Melissa Blue said:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been seeing this subject a lot lately. Being one of those noobs who sent out my book without thought, I have to admit that ignorance is the main culprit. I didn’t know there was more to writing than finishing a book. My heart goes out to those, but the ones whose writing is a calling will learn and be better writers.

    Since writing is subjective there is no way to know when you are ready. With stories–though rare– of authors selling their first, second or third book, there is no barometer to know when you are ready to submit. Because you never know when you will get the call. That’s why many writers still try, even though they should wait.

  34. Anonymous said:

    At least the marketplace will give you an answer.

    If you can’t sell it, then, NO, your book isn’t ready.

  35. rebecca said:

    Thank you for writing that! I should forward this to family members who hold the same believe as some of those aspiring writers of which you speak. I’m in the process, for the first time, of finally writing a book. I cannot state the amount of times my husband and a sister-in-law keep digging at me “you should have done this 20 years ago and you’d be rich by now.” Yes, I’m a good writer, but it takes more than that. They have no clue. As I tell them time and again, 20 years ago, 10 years ago or even 5 years ago, I wasn’t ready. Within the past year I’ve taken some Creative Writing workshops and have a published author as a mentor who suggested (based on a short story I submitted) that I expand said story into a novel. It’s been exhilarating, challenging, days of nonexistent ideas on how to move the story forward, days where the muses were plentiful and kind, and so on. Plus, I am taking on something outside of my familiar and level of comfort: sci-fi, which has been a terrific learning experience.

    Am I doing this to publish and make money? No. I’m doing this to see if I can write something that has good legs to stand on. And, if in the end, I or my mentor feels it can be publishable, then so much the better. I’m on the other end of the scale in terms of emerging writers – I know the difficulty in getting one’s story published and so I learn and hone my craft as best as I can, learning each day, because whatever I finally put out there will be a reflection of my very best. And time will tell whether that very best was good enough….

  36. Ghost Writer said:

    Oh Gosh.. I get the feeling that I’m one of them now. Having said that I do have a degree in Creative Writing and I do write for a living… But I haven’t joined any critique groups. At a bit of a loss really. All I know is that I’m desperate to get my story of life in Dubai out there – but I can’t!!!

  37. Anonymous said:

    Every time I get a rejection I fear I may be one of those clueless people on American Idol who don’t realize they haven’t any talent. But I love writing so I continue.
    I think the real problem is that someone can be an artist and people can see they are an artist even if they never have a show or sell a painting.
    If I tell people I am a writer inevitably their first question is “What have you published?’ I say nothing. Then they are disinterested and walk away.
    It’s like you’re never truly considered an author unless you are published.
    I think if you love what you do you should continue.
    I agree it’s frustrating.

  38. rebecca said:

    To Anomymous:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! It’s like the American Idol contestants/winners were not ‘real’ singers until they ‘made it big’ so to speak. It somehow gave their craft legitimacy. Yet, they were all singers before they were known.

    When I read your comment, I had to comment myself because it is so true. You cannot say you are writer because then they ask inevitably, ‘what have you published,’ and if the answer is ‘nothing yet,’ then you are not worth their time. It’s sad, isn’t it?

    But, like you, I consider myself a writer because that is what I am. It’s what has spoken to my soul and what defines me since I was a wee child.

  39. Stephanie Faris said:

    So true, and I never thought about it that way. I’ve logged so many hours in critique groups, writing conferences, reading industry materials, etc., that I could have gotten a Ph.D. in all this time. What further irks me are people who claim if you are prolific, you can’t be a good writer. Because they take a year to produce one 300-page manuscript, they are brilliant and I must be writing “too fast.” Yet I look at their schedules and every time they are 90 percent procrastination and 10 percent perspiration. And THAT makes for a good writer? And, yes, writer’s conferences and such can be an excellent way to procrastinate. I see it all the time. There are many writers out there who just like to wander around, talking about writing but when it comes time to actually sit down and do it, they fail.

  40. Anonymous said:

    Your rant might have some validity if it wasn’t for the fact that people use language everyday. Using language everyday may not make you a great writer or speaker but you’re using the tools regularly. The same can’t be said for any other art form. There are talented storytellers that won’t make it and poor ones that will. While I love to read, there are piles of books at any bookstore that I would never read. When I watch Book TV on CSPAN on the weekend, I’m amazed at some of the garbage that gets published. Many, if not all, of those books are written by people who have been writing for years and getting published. That doesn’t mean they’ve been writing well for years. It’s the fact that there are so many poor books out there, written by mediocre authors that leads aspiring writers to submit their material. But really Kristin you’re too modest. Because your real talent has been getting some of your dancers a shot in the first place—some of whom have succeeded.

  41. Anonymous said:

    I needed to read that. I am on my third novel and I don’t even bother with queries yet. I knew from the beginning it wouldn’t be easy, and it isn’t. But I know this, perseverance and diligence (the daily grind) will get me there. Learning will get me there. When the time IS right, the query will land in the right person’s lap.

  42. aimeestates said:

    I was actually very glad to read this. I’m on my third novel and don’t even bother with the query letters at this point. I just purchased a great book by Jack Creed, and I’m still learning. I push forward everyday and work very hard. I peruse my Little, Brown handbook and dig through the thesaurus everyday. When the time is right, I already know, that query letter will land on the right desk.

  43. Aimee K. Maher said:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I took a real bruising two years ago just sending out a half dozen query letters after finishing my first book. I won’t plague you with the details, but let’s just say, second greade structure is not something an agent wants to see. All of them were form rejected, of course.

    Two years later, I’ve rewritten that book about 10 times, and written and rewritten two more. I am way more confident in my abilities at this point. Still, not mailing those letters just yet.

    I think I shot myself in the foot by writing a series right out of the gate. El Stupido! What about me makes anyone think I’ll finish what I started? No one knows anything about me! There are so many things to consider if you want to do this job right, and yes, it is a job, with the same kind of responsibilities and requirements of most others.

    I talk and type everyday, and I didn’t know Jack Strap about how to structure a book.

    I in no way agree that a rejection from the market equates a writer “not being ready”. Trends have a lot to do with who gets picked up, a lot.

    Then again, what do I know? I’m still at the bottom of the pool, right near the drain.

  44. Madeleine said:

    Obviously, we all hope we can get there, but that’s the key. Hoping is not knowing. It’s not like we’re going to walk into our front lawns in the middle of the night and scream, “Wait ’til next month when you see me on the NYT Bestsellers List!”

    No. We’re the people who walk out, look up, and (as corny as this sounds) wish for the success. Or, better yet, wish for the genuine ability to reach that point. I hope I’ll get there, but I don’t take it for granted that I will.

    I’m a kid, so I do believe I’ll get there someday if I keep working as hard as I currently am. It takes work… just like every other darn thing in our lives. Luckily for us, we love to write. The idea of having to write and write and write our way to success isn’t a turn-off.

    Tip to all: Subscribe to Writer’s Digest.