While I have previously tackled the perennial conversation topic/game/complaint Today’s Publishing Industry Would Have Never Publishing Such and Such Genius Old Book Because Everyone in Publishing Today is a Freaking Idiot, there is a component to these complaints that I would like to delve into just a tad deeper.
I find it curious that whenever this comes up, 99% of the time the “example” book that supposedly wouldn’t be published today happens to be a rule-breaking and/or idiosyncratic and/or conventional-wisdom-defying classic. Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury or Infinite Jest or Moby-Dick etc. etc. etc. And more curiously still, the thing that most of these books have in common is that they were written by an author who had already established huge followings and credibility the old fashioned way.
The Hits Before the Hits
J.K. Rowling did not start off writing 200,000+ word books for middle graders where important beloved characters, ya know, die. By the time she wrote Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, the longest in the series, she had the audience’s trust to delve extremely deeply into the world of her novels and to explore a deep emotional palette, deeper than may have have been possible with a debut.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a more conventionally told tale, before dropping the epic The Lord of the Rings.
James Joyce wrote Dubliners before Ulysses. David Foster Wallace wrote the relatively trim (467 pages) The Broom of the System and had a zillion short stories published everywhere that matters before he wrote Infinite Jest. Herman Melville wrote conventional travel memoirs before publishing Moby-Dick (which famously was a bust at first).
In other words, these writers built their audience before they tried to break all the rules.
The Keith Hernandez Rule
There is a classic Seinfeld episode where former Mets baseball star Keith Hernandez is on a date with Elaine, and he’s worrying about whether he should kiss her. Then he thinks to himself, “Wait a second, I’m Keith Hernandez!”
The Sports Guy calls this a Keith Hernandez Moment — when a sports star realizes, wait a second, I’m LeBron James, I’m going to score the next 25 points.
Writers who have achieved “I’m Keith Hernandez!” status haven’t just achieved the trust of the publishing industry, they’ve achieved the trust of readers, who will stick with them longer than they would have otherwise if it were a debut. They’ve earned the ability to delve in deeper into a world or into an idiosyncratic style than would normally be possible because they have gained the authority to do it.
This is why it’s dangerous to try and get too far out there before you’ve achieved Keith Hernandez status. Yes, there are occasional 200,000+ word debuts and yes, there are books that sometimes break the rules in advance.
But for the most part, if you’re going to take a journey with someone deep into the wilderness, the first step is convincing the other person that you’re a good guide.
all i want to know is whether or not i need the mustache to qualify for The Keith Hernandez rule.
this might be a problem.
my lonely journal says
So true. Some of our most infamous experimental artists (visual and literary) were capable of producing perfectly standard still life images or metric/rhyming poems or short stories. And they did. They learned and practiced the rules before they bent and broke them.
I'm so, so tired of new young artists who mistake inadvertently straying from standards and accidentally being "experimental" for novel art. Art is artifice. Artifice is deliberate. And I'm not comfortable with anyone who gets too formally, syntactically, visually, basically anything-ly crazy … before he/she proves an ability to work proficiently with the basics.
Silver the Wanderer says
I just wanted to thank you for the awesome blog. I've learned so much about writing and publishing from reading it. Thank you so much for all the hard work you've put into it. 🙂
Nathan Bransford says
Yes, a Keith Hernandez mustache gives you instant Keith Hernandez status. Don't worry, a fake one works just as well.
Amanda Sablan says
Ah, the stache! I'm incredibly jealous!
You are all too right about this one, Nathan. Every now and again, some writer emerges as an exception, but the odds are against you. Why risk it when you can just be patient?
Ramsey Hootman says
Nathan, I agree with your point, but not the analogy. Any guy who thinks he'll farther with me because of his celebrity status is in for one heck of a rude awakening.
Ramsey Hootman says
GET farther, I meant.
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
I think Tahereh should grow a real mustache. Just sayin'. No pain, no gain.
And I can still picture that performance by LeBron, hittin' 29 of the Cavs last 30 points…
I just can't bring myself to cheer for the Heat. Especially once Pat Riley fires Erik Spoelstra before Game 7 of the Finals so he can take over, give a speech, and take credit.
I've been reading your blog for some time now and I'm always impressed. You never let me down. Each day I look forward to seeing what piece of wit or wisdom you have posted. You are wise, smart, and funny (isn't that what they call a "hat trick" in soccer?). Thanks so much for all that you give back to us.
BTW…today you are wise. 😉
Matthew Rush says
I think Tahereh would do better with an Old Spice Guy mustache, since she actually controls the OSG with her QP army of Jedi Ninja Cowboys.
T. Anne says
"But for the most part, if you're going to take a journey with someone deep into the wilderness, the first step is convincing the other person that you're a good guide."
You hit the nail on the head. Good post. And by the way, you're a pretty good guide at this whole writing thing.
Krista V. says
Great advice. You have to demonstrate you know the rules before you try to break them.
Picasso is another great example of this phenomenon. He didn't dump Cubism on the world straight out of the gate. If you check out his earlier paintings, you'll find they look a lot like the Post-impressionistic work of Van Gogh and Cezanne. He showed the world he knew the conventions of his day – and could execute them masterfully – before he started to develop his own unique style.
Of course, Nathan, with regard to aspiring, first-time authors, I'm sure you recognize that "it's not over till it's over."
That is so true! My fave Norwegian author has the ability to make you feel sorry for the offender in her crime novels. She will really make you sympathize and understand him or her. Usually she write's about murders, so the day she published a book about a pedophile, I really had to go a few rounds with myself before I dared to pick up the book. I wasn't sure that that was a territory I wanted to explore. But I had to – I had read every single other one of her novels, and I couldn't miss out on this one. Faitful fan, faithful reader… The book btw was good in a goosebumby horrible way.
Richard Mabry says
Great discussion. Unfortunately, there are some writers who apparently think they're Keith Hernandez when they more closely resemble Keith Olberman.
First, I have good news. No one dies in Harry Potter. I didn't like those parts, they were sad, so I re-wrote them. In my version, Voldemort and Harry eventually realize they should stop being so mad at each other and share their true, more vulnerable feelings. They cry and hug it out.
Great post, Nathan. I absolutely agree with gaining the reader's trust before you take them for a wild ride. That is well said, per usual.
But one issue that does come up for me about this is that you really don't have to write and publish books in the same order.
So, if Tolkein wants to write LOTR and publish the Hobbit first, that works out quite well. And I would not want to discourage J.R.R. from writing LOTR, although I might discourage him from sending you a query for it…at first. The Hobbitt would be a better debut book.
Sometimes I think authors don't consider their debut enough. It's fine to write a book, put it in the drawer if you think you'll have trouble selling it, or – as you aptly put it, Nathan – finding an audience who is willing to trust you with it – and then work on something else. But I do say, when the muse is ready, go with the muse. Follow the muse, that's my philosphy. 🙂 Then, come back to the interesting, albeit more difficult reality of what and when to sell.
Linda Godfrey says
But Keith Hernandez went too far and asked Jerry to help him move before the guy-lationship was ready. A lesson in that too, perhaps?
Marilyn Peake says
My guess is that most writers would prefer to work with agents. But I think it’s pretty cool that, in today’s world, writers who feel they might have a good manuscript but also have a pile of rejections can try alternate paths to publication. I’ve noticed that quite a few self-published authors on Amazon have high rankings on Kindle. A few of the high ranks caught my attention, so I also purchased those books. I’ve also purchased a few books that started off as indie or self-published books and were later picked up by big publishing companies after they proved success: TINKERS by Paul Harding which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction this year, THE LACE READER by Brunonia Barry, and THE FOLDED WORLD by Amity Gaige, to name a few. (I purchased the indie press version of THE FOLDED WORLD before it won ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year.) There are many examples of self-published and indie successes in today’s world, which I find inspiring. That’s not to say that those authors didn’t pay their dues. Accomplishing that level of writing skill usually takes years of practice, even if those years don’t involve making money.
February Grace says
Who is this 'Seinfeld' of which you speak?
(Yes yes, I know who he is. I never cared for the show.)
Susan Gourley/Kelley says
I always find that statement amusing. Perhaps they wouldn't be published today but some of the things being published today wouldn't have been published five years ago, ten years ago and won't be accepted ten years in the future. Thank goodness the public's interest grows, changes, and demands something new and orginal.
DA Kentner says
The metallic sound you hear is me battening down the hatches as I prepare a modicum of disagreement.
Are there basics a writer must learn? Absolutely.
But a writer also has to develop and write in his/her own voice. What is important is the story and how it is told. The reader is and should be the final arbiter.
I realize for a book to be published within the traditional routes there are certain expectations. Yet, the expectations ought to be the same for agent, publisher, and reader/consumer. (Wow. The rules are falling like dominoes.)
Did the tag carry my focus to the blurb? Did the blurb take me to the first chapter? Did the first chapter take me to the second chapter, etc, etc. If the answer to those questions is ‘yes,’ the book is worth reading.
Examine the wilderness guide question.
Two men. One is wearing an issued smoky bear hat, red shirt with neckerchief and khaki shorts, all clean and lightly starched above freshly oiled ankle boots. The other has scuffed boots, torn trousers, frayed flannel shirt, and hair like dried twigs sticking out from under a sun-faded, floppy, felt hat.
The first says, “The plant to your immediate left is poison ivy. If you’ll turn to page forty-seven in your pocket guidebook you will find a comparative photograph, the hazards associated with the genus, as well as the recommended proper precautions to take.”
The second offers, “The plant to your left is poison ivy. You best remember it, because if you don’t, and you drop your drawers to take a shit in a pile of it, don’t come crying to me when you start scratching your ass. One more thing – – if a bear charges, you don’t need to outrun the bear, just the guy next to you.”
I’m going with number two.
Watch it again.
My wife asked me once to shave my mustache. That was a WTF moment right there!
ryan field says
Never thought about it this way. But it makes sense.
Lilliam Rivera says
I love that episode with Keith Hernandez. Great tips.
Stephanie McGee says
Excellent writing advice, as always.
Someone commented that authors need to write their own voice. In my opinion, part of that includes learning the rules so you know how and why you're breaking them when you do as part of being true to your own voice.
Did Hemingway know how to write in full sentences? Probably. But he chose the shorter, declarative-esque sentences because they felt truer to his voice. Would his voice be the same if he chose otherwise?
It'd be the same, because if he'd chosen otherwise, he would have developed a completely different voice.
wry wryter says
My ovaries will not allow me to grow a mustache…yet…so lets see, fake stache, boob job, teeth whitening, dyed hair, lipo, tummy tuck, lid and butt lift, who wouldn't want me as a guide.
Nathan, to me, you are forever more, Mr. Hernandez…in the dark anyway. I can type with the lights out.
I was just thinking the same thing about Jimmy Buffet. He could sing his grocery list, add tropical music, and have a hit.
Kelly Wittmann says
Excellent post! It may be cliche, but it's true: You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk.
Actually, when I was about one hundred pages into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I thought to myself, "Hmmm. This would never have been published in the U.S. if it hadn't been a big seller in Europe." I still think that. And the author didn't have a body of published work behind him.
Well said indeed!
Develop your trade, find a base and then hit ´em with your out there stuff!
BTW – my word verfication for this post is GURLYS!
I'm new to your blog Nathan and I'd like to thank you for the wealth of information that is available here 🙂
It's easy for people to say that certain books would never be published today. Most were published so long ago that the struggle the authors endured to get them to market is forgotten.
In the case of James Joyce, he wrote Dubliners in 1908 but it wasn't published until 1913. His second book, A Portrait of the Artist couldn't find a publisher either but was serialised in 1914/15. It was only when Joyce was befriended by Ezra Pound that the complete novel was printed in 1916 in New York and later in London. Joyce threw a large part of the Ulysses manuscript onto the fire and it was rescued by Nora Barnacle. When it was published in 1922, some hailed him as a genius but it was banned in the US and the UK and wasn't published there until around 1934, if memory serves. His final novel Finnegan's Wake was a commercial flop and considered a silly and difficult read.
Those who thought he was a genius would always feel that way but I'm sure there were equal numbers who thought Ulysses a waste of paper and wished he'd succeeded in burning it. I suppose a book is a bit like the concept of beauty – it's in the eye and the mind of the beholder.
Anthony DeRouen says
A quick question about the 200,000 word debut.
My first novel finished at 238,000 words roughly. Friends within my writing group have said it's too long and agents will pass on it because of its length or request I shorten it then re-query. To me, the premise is simple and the pacing is good. Every scene moves the story in some aspect.
So my question is, are novels this length really that rare for debut authors?
I find that Seinfeld often holds the answers to life's mysteries. Whenever I have a problem, I just slip in a DVD, pick an episode, yadda yadda yadda, problem solved.
Tom Schiavon says
First, I think I still have that 1987 Topps Keith Hernandez card.
Second, I find the same principle is true when doing stand-up. Some jokes, even by the masters, if taken out of context, don't make sense. But an audience will laugh at a halfway decent joke if you have had them rolling for the first few minutes.
I get what you're saying, and I agree with it. Heck, I believe rules really were made to be broken.
However, here's my issue: If you show me that you can write well once, then you better do it again. Otherwise, it's not rule-breaking. It's laziness.
I came across a good example just this week. Grabbed a book at Goodwill – a well known author I've read before. Not a superb *writer* by any means, but decent, and a good storyteller.
The book, well into author's best-selling career, was horrific. Well, the first 75 or so pages were, at least.
D.G. Hudson says
The only trouble with the Keith Hernandez rule is that some people start thinking they're Pete Rose. (then the Ego supercedes rational thought)
Nathan, I'm wondering if this post is a result of you receiving a lot of weird break-all-the-rules submissions?
Nathan, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's not just novel length – it's also the writing style.
I have read more than one debut novel that frankly puzzled me. They broke all the rules on the fundamentals of writing and got away with it(I won't name any names here, but we can all think of a few).
Every serious writer has heard of The Elements of Style. Also there are hundreds of web site dedicated to the art of writing. Every agent says "well written" and no publisher wants to have to do more editing than necessary.
So why is it that some novels that in my opinion are poorly written (i.e. tons of adverbs – telling not showing)not only get past agents, but also get past editors? Maybe this is another post altogether, but I'd love to understand the reasoning.
Erin Reel says
Bravo! Well said!
Nicki Elson says
Ooh yes, Nathan, please do blog on what lodjohnson just said. Why are we told that query letters and submissions must be picture perfect, and yet entire best-selling novels are littered with sloppy writing and negligent editing? HOW does this happen?
I'll happily name names, if you like. Sure, Hop Sing's may refuse to deliver, but I'll risk it.
How about the If-You're-Famous-You-Can-Write-What-You-Had-For-Dinner-And-The-World-Will-Read-It category, regardless of sloppy writing and no plot?
Bane of Anubis says
Nathan, ha, Keith Hernandez… brings back the good ole days of listening to the Orioles on the radio… when players did coke instead of steroids (I'm thinking of you Doc Gooden and Mr. Strawberry. Good times…
Bryan, good for you… Both Bosh and Bron Bron… Laker haters have found another team to hate.
Man, a cyclone of madness. I'm trying to keep the thread of the last few days of this post in perspective but I find myself wanting to laugh like a madman. When I read a story I want to be frightened, I want to cry, I want to be in awe of a thought I had never had, I want to vicariously fall in love. Why, why on earth would I want to sit around the camp-fire and listen to you explain to me why you are so clever? I'll read a dictionary if I want that. That is clever! I dare you to reproduce that in an individual style. It seems, and don't steal my genius idea, that we are all blind, living in a cave and struggling to describe the world as it once looked. The world is still here! Tell me a story! Anyway, back to my drinking game. Madness! Madness!
Nathan Bransford says
Actually Jeff, you stole Plato's idea with the cave thing, so….
John Jack says
I try not to be surprised by the generational gap viewpoints apparent at this blog, Mr. Bransford's Generation Y, others Generation X and Generation Z, the Boomer Generation also known as the Me Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and who knows what the up and coming generation is. Different attitudes and outlooks toward culture abound.
The Y Generation for its worship of idol celebrities' megasuccesses seems appropriate to the commercialization of culture, which accelerated in the '90s and is about at its peak. Ever higher and higher peaks have gravitational limits, re: the Babel tower. What goes up will come down.
The time will come again when cultural accomplishment is not measured by financial success and material wealth, but by insightful understandings of the human condition and influences for the greater good.
Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 had it right, technology destroys culture, but it also had it wrong, at least it didn't offer solutions. There are phoenixes in the ashes. Technology will also be the solution.
The technological future holds celebrityhood potential for more people in more niches, broader based, not monoculturally based. The meadow now is covered with ornamental Bermuda grass, but the explosive diaspora of crossover and slipstream genres and writers prospecting for new venues and channels is driving niche marketing's emergence. Technology is behind it.
Literary agents used to be harder to converse with than national statespersons. They weren't in the public mind. Under siege from struggling writers, they mostly preferred it that way. Technology has brought them safely out of obscurity and into the limelight, albeit through the impersonally remote proxy realities of technology.
It won't be fifteen parsimonious minutes of fame for everyone anymore, it'll be fame for everyone in their own times and niche places as much as they want and can accomplish by dedicated, conscientious committment.
Bottom's up! Thank you!
Nathan Bransford says
Interesting points John Jack, though I'm not so certain this generation is so different than any other when it comes to infatuation with celebrity. As I pointed out on Twitter, Shirley Temple's first authorized biography came out when she was seven. But I think you are right about the potential for celebrity becoming more diffuse.
Terri Weeding says
Mother of Pearl! People still read 200,000 words or (gasp) more? And here I was thinking 80,000 words might be pushing the limit for the short attention span American…not to sterotype or anything. Speaking of short attention spans, just received notice of a Hint Fiction contest. 25 words or less. Has anyone heard of this?
John Jack says
No, sir, Mr. Bransford, no generation is immune to celebrity infatuation. Who and what a generation becomes infatuated with, though, varies widely. I've seen 'em come and go, streak like shooting stars and fall like meteors.
Once upon a time not so long ago in Merry Old England it was the height of dating fashion for eligible suitors to lathe intricate wooden spindles and invite impressionable maidens to their spartan studios and view their turnings. What ever happened to that?
Ishta Mercurio says
You glossed over an important sub-point here: MOBY DICK might have broken the rules, but it was a bust at first.
What publisher wants to risk publishing a book that will be a bust? And yes, that happens all the time anyway, but if you're taking on a manuscript that breaks a ton of rules, or even just a few big ones, you're stacking the deck against yourself. That's not smart business.