John Ramsey Miller

We all hear people say that everybody has a book in them. That may well be true, but, if they were actually written, the vast majority of those books would be just awful. When I speak about writing to groups, I always talk about that age old pyramid that’s standing on its tip. The base is the of the millions of books that are started each year followed ¾ ’s of the way down by the small fraction of those that will be completed in some fashion. Of the finished books, (we’re getting right down to the tip now) only a small percentage will find an agent to represent them. Of the agent-represented books, only a small percentage will be purchased for publication. Of all of those books only a handful will be commercially successful. The final category, the best selling books comprise the very point where the two outside lines touch. So the odds are very much against any writer becoming John Grisham, Stephen King, James Patterson, or JK Rowling. But we authors who are able to make a good living with words kept going despite the odds.

Late one night, just after my first novel was published, an uncle of mine called out of the blue to say that I should write a book about his amazingly interesting life. I explained that I only wrote fiction, (My first published book was a biography and the neutron bomb of publishing) and that I couldn’t get a biography published, even if I wanted to write one, and it was about the life of someone as utterly fascinating as I knew he was. That got me off the hook, but I’m fairly certain he believed that I was keeping the world from learning how interesting he was.

If you do write a book that gets published, you’ll quickly discover that everybody who knows somebody you know will magically materialize and ask you to introduce them to your agent, or at a minimum, ask you to read a book they (or a friend or relative) have written. If you can figure out a way to say no graciously, you can save yourself a lot of grief. Rarely will accepting a manuscript submitted for your opinion do you, or the author any good.

In my experience, (and it includes accepting dozens of unsolicited manuscripts), after you read the novel (or as much of it as you can stand) you’ll discover one of several things. The book is awful–and ninety-eight percent will fall into this category– and you have to tell the author something other than the truth. You don’t want to encourage them, because the encouragement may mean they will keep writing thinking they might actually have some talent or a shot at being the next Dan Brown, but you don’t want to be cruel and dash their hopes.

Like a blind pig foraging, there will be an occasional acorn in the pile. Once in a blue moon you will read a manuscript that is good, maybe even very good. This has happened to me twice. I referred both of those manuscripts to my agent and she immediately didn‘t take them on. Not because they weren’t good, but because she didn’t think she could sell them. Maybe she was just being nice to me.

And there are a lot of people out there who should write books and have them published. I have a close friend who has a great storytelling ability, a great sense of humor, she reads mysteries voraciously, and I know she can write with the best of them. She just finished her first cozy, and I read it and I was correct. She can write, and I have no doubt that she will write several books and with luck and determination, she may just find an agent, a publisher and an audience. She develops great characters, gives great description, knows how to create a setting, and she’s funny. I hope she succeeds, and she’s certainly got the determination one needs. And she doesn’t write thinking she’ll get rich, she writes because she loves it and has discovered how difficult our trade is. All of us should encourage people like my friend.

People on the outside think what we do is easy. Once at a cocktail party a dermatologist came up to me and said when he retired from his practice he was going to write novels. I told him that I’ve always thought that when I retired from writing I’d become a physician. He looked at me like I’d dropped road kill into his lap. He said writing could hardly be compared to being a physician. I told him I’d bet him five hundred dollars that I could put on a white coat and freeze off a wart with an hours instruction, but he couldn’t write a publishable novel in two years.

I’ve been successful in that I’ve supported my family for twenty years by stacking words into stories. I never cared if I made a lot of money. All I ever hoped for was that I could entertain people with my stories and make a living at the thing I most love and feel compelled to do. So far, I have, I should say, because you are only as good as your last book. I’ve never minded the hard work, long hours, the solitude, the deadlines, the insecurity, the anxiety, or all the other things we authors go through to bring an our ideas into manuscript form. Making your living doing something you love is heaven. But almost anybody who becomes an author thinking it is a quick and easy way to get rich is a fool, and that person is more than likely wasting perfectly good time and energy they could be devoting to some criminal enterprise like lawyering or banking.

Like most things, writing is only hard work if you do it right.


  1. Wow, what a great post! And I love the dermatologist story. It’s so true. Most people have no idea what it takes to write a good story.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, John! I also love the doctor story and plan on adopting that method in similar circumstances. Writing ain’t easy, but I can’t think of anything I would rather do more.

  3. John, the dermatologist story was perfect. I had a similar conversation with my dentist but I fear I might need more than an hour’s instruction for the proposed root canal.

    Your points about the inverted pyramid ring so true. Just think if we individually received a number of awful manuscripts, what is it like to be a literary agent and have to face the mountain of submissions each week. I’ll stick to being a writer. I would never want their job.

  4. Like everyone I loved the dermatologist story – a perfect encapsulation of the many conversations I’ve had with people who think that writing a novel is something they’ll ‘just do’ when they get a spare moment – like knitting a sweater!

  5. John,

    I think one of the really hard things for frustrated writers to realize is that a talent for telling stories and even a gift for turning phrases is just a small part of the overall equation for writing a book. That stuff is talent, and it’s important; but craft is equally important, and like any other craft, writing well can only be learned by writing a lot. I’ve long thought that writers with talent should spend precious little time reading books about writing. They should instead write. And re-write. And re-re-write. On and on until it’s as perfect as it can be to the author’s ear.

    Unwillingness to do that is what keeps the thick part of the pyramid full.

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