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Jodi Picoult on Writing

4 April 2012

From The Daily Beast:

Jodi Picoult. Picoult is already the author of 18 books, the last five of which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

. . . .

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

It starts with a “what if” question. I wonder, What would I do in that situation? What if this parameter or that one changed? Eventually characters start talking to me—I can hear them in my head. I then do a ton of research—and finally, when I know I have the perfect first line, I let myself start to write.

. . . .

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

. . . .

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I had over 100 rejection letters from agents. Finally, one woman who had never represented anyone in her life said she thought she could take me on. I jumped at the chance. She sold my first novel in three months.

. . . .

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Take a workshop course. You need to learn to give and get criticism and to write on demand. And DO NOT SELF PUBLISH.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast

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50 Comments to “Jodi Picoult on Writing”

  1. The book co-written with her daughter sounds really cute. Too bad I’m not willing to pay $9.99 for it.

    And why the “DO NOT SELF PUBLISH”? Why is there so much hostility surrounding this choice?

    I honestly don’t get it. Is it the threat to their own world view? What does Jodi Picoult care if people self-publish or not? Wouldn’t that presumably cause less competition for her and those traditionally published? Is running the traditional gauntlet the only way to be a true writer?

  2. I clicked through to the article hoping that she’d give more reasons on why authors shouldn’t self publish. Alas, the interviewer just went on to the next question–probably just nodding in agreement as he went. I disagree with her when it comes to self publishing, but am always curious as to why some authors are so against it. (e.g., quality issues? Afraid of the competition? Want writers to climb the same mountains she climbed? etc.)

    • There must be some secret coalition out there that pays idiots to conduct interviews. No follow-up questions to anything. Only superficial questions. What a waste.

      • In fairness it depends on how the interview was conducted and how responsive the interviewee seemed to follow-up questions (in my other life I have interviewed people in various ways). If it’s email and it’s going through, say, Piccoult’s publicict and there were instructions about “no more than 5 questions” or suggested topics, the interviewer might not have had the ability to follow up even if they were interested.

        OR, they’re a lousy interviewer.

        • That’s fair enough. I’ve been interviewed myself via email, where I was just given six questions to answer, and no follow-ups were asked. So it’s possible I’m just pissed because she was able to make that all-caps comment about self-publishing with no response.

  3. @Abel, if you ever get an answer to those questions, please let me know. Because I’ve actually asked published authors those same questions, and the only answer I get is, “Because…” followed by a long silence before the person walks away.

    • Susan, with most published authors I know, the three issues they cite are 1) the belief that traditional publishing makes them a better writer because editors will kick their butts, and 2) they went through the work of getting an agent/publisher and think that other authors should do the same, and 3) quality issues: that self published works are poorly written, edited, and have crappy covers.

      Having gone both traditional and self published route, I understand where their concerns come from. It’s hard to spend lots of time courting agents and publishers only to see others bypass all that. And, yes, there are quality issues with a lot of self-published works. However, I’ve found that self publishing actually makes me a better writer and a better marketer/businessman because I end up taking more responsibility for the final product. Even though I hire quality editors and proofreaders to assists, I actually spend more time writing and rewriting because I know because the final quality of my book rests solely on my shoulders. I also way more in tune with readers wants and needs because I’m writing to them–not an agent or publisher. I can’t simply blame a failure on a publisher, designer, agent, or someone else.

      I don’t fault writers for going the traditional route but wish more of them would at least give self publishing a try instead of just dismissing it. I think it would make them a better writer.

      • I agree, Abel. I just indie published my 9th book, and the pressure to make this book the best it could be was far greater than when I was submitting to editors via my agent. It may be that a particular editor might make my book better, but editors are pretty frazzled these days and there’s no guarantee that my book, even if purchased by a publisher, would get the support of say, Jodi Picoult’s book. With indie publishing, there’s no buffer between you and your readers.

      • Thanks, Abel!

        Hmmm…That’s what I’ve doing wrong. My editor doesn’t kick my a**, but she does mock me incessantly if I do something really stupid. Only minor mocking occurs otherwise on the edits she sends me.

      • Abel, 1 & 3 are self-resolving problems. Write better. Don’t have crappy covers. Find an editor who will kick your a**.

        As for 2? Sorry they wasted their time? I guess, that’s all that could be said at this point.

      • ” because editors will kick their butts”
        I have reviewed Picoult novels for years. If her editor is kicking butt, I’m wondering how errors like a character driving through the Northern Midwest in May can be mesmerized by corn tasseling in the fields. We don’t even plant corn here till May. In another book, a building blew up and 100 pages later the main character is sitting in front of the INTACT building contemplating the day of the tragedy.

        Her writing is mainstream. Her success is undeniable. Is she an expert on the publishing industry? Hardly. Choose your gurus carefully would be my advice.
        —mkp
        OnText.com

    • Back In The Day… If you self-published, you had basically doomed that story to never being taken up for-pay by any real site. Also, Vanity Press was much more rife — “self-published” usually meant that you paid some place to lie to you about how you’d be faaaaaaaaaamous and on bookstore shelves, etc.

      That has, to say the least, changed.

  4. “Take a workshop course. You need to learn to give and get criticism and to write on demand. And DO NOT SELF PUBLISH.”

    Continuing off mike “Because once you’re tainted with vanity publishing, you will never be able to undo the damage done. Sorta like if you say worked in television and then tried to get published. No one would take you seriously as a “real writer” because only the elites get to say who’s a real writer and what real publishing is.

    “And furthermore, you may never get published because you can’t jump through the hoops well enough or think the right/approved thoughts deemed acceptable in New York City. That isn’t important. You must do this the way we say. That is what’s important. Learn to be happy with your non-success.”

    • “Sorta like if you say worked in television and then tried to get published.”

      *cough* Sue Grafton *cough* *cough*

      🙂

  5. I think there’s a hint in the previous answer, with her being rejected over 100 times by agents. There seems to be a segment of the writing community that believes that cycle of years of rejections is some kind of badge of honor or necessary course of action to becoming a writer. For that to be true, though, you’d have to operate under the assumption that all those rejections are based purely on the quality of the work, which I don’t believe for a minute. To me, the root question is am I better off improving and learning in the crucible of the marketplace appealing directly to the people who I want to spend money on my books, or do I want to develop as a writer by the editor-agent-publisher standards who have their own agendas about what works for their specific business that doesn’t necessarily correspond with my personal goals? In that type of decision, I’ll take the marketplace option every time, but then I’m also entrepreneurial minded and don’t have an issue with wearing the publisher-marketing hats too. It’s not for everyone, of course, but a blanket “do not self publish” statement is bad advice, I think. That and I’ve been involved in workshops in the past that were gigantic wastes of time, so I take what she says with an entire shaker of salt, not just a grain.

  6. The juxtaposition between the don’t self-pub stance and getting an agent who’s never agented anyone before is interesting. Validation from some random individual with no industry experience is okay, but validation directly from readers is not.

    Perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation, but alas, the article provides no depth.

  7. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    Made sense right up to the last line…

    Another author to mark off my list…

  8. If a hundred agents reject what turns out to be a best-selling author, what does that say about the judgment of these so-called gatekeepers?

    If Jodi Picoult had been able to self-publish back in the day, she might have launched her career years earlier, without waiting for all those self-proclaimed experts to deliver their mistaken verdicts.

    In the end, a best-selling author is not discovered by an agent or a publisher. A best-selling author is discovered by readers.

  9. The thing we have to remember is that highly successful authors are insulated from the changes at the bottom (or even the middle).

    The fact was, this advice was good only five years ago.

    The “Never self-publish” at that time was, ironically, meant to keep young writers fro falling prey to parasitic con people. (Ironically now, the people you have to worry about are agents.)

    • Bingo. Most of the opposition to self-publishing comes from writers who haven’t been exposed to the changes that have happened in the last couple of years. They’re not being malicious — though some writing sites still ban anyone who promotes self-publishing too eagerly — they just haven’t caught up with the changes in the industry.

    • This is what I was thinking. Established authors at the top are insulated from the industry changes and the challenges to an unpublished author.

      I think hurdles and struggling to rise to a level of good is important, but at the same time, if those hurdles no longer exist in traditional publishing (or only do in a handful of imprints), why continue to prance the dead show pony around?

  10. The absolute “don’t self-publish” only shows the narrow thinking mentality of an author who has invested her time in the traditional publication method and doesn’t want to acknowledge that an alternate, less hoop-jumping method to reach her readers is valid and works. She fears admitting she could have been published much easier.

    This is because the prized goal isn’t necessarily getting a best-selling book. Oh, every author wants that. But the real goal is to be published. And if you don’t have to sweat, struggle, and claw your way into being published, then it doesn’t mean nearly as much as they want it to mean.

    But a self-published author’s goal is never merely to be published. True, the self-published author doesn’t have to do as much as the traditionally published author to get “in print.” Which means getting a book published, while still an accomplishment, doesn’t mean as much as someone who has been rejected numerous times to finally emerge ten years later with a publishing deal. It means more because a publisher is willing to invest money, sometimes a couple of hundred thousand dollars, into publishing your book. That’s a confirmation of the value of your book to some degree that the self-published author doesn’t get.

    Where the self-published author goes through the same rejection and confirmation is with readers. If it sells, that is the ultimate goal of both routes to being published. It is just that the self-published author doesn’t put as much value on getting published as the traditional author does.

    But she doesn’t have to say what her reasons are. I’ve heard them all before.

    • I love this idea…the notion that because I put it up myself (vs jumping through the curation hoops) I don’t feel validated because it’s published but rather because of sales numbers and good feedback from readers. Because, that. That is how I feel.

  11. I’ve noticed that for many writers, the self-publishing route IS any important part of their learning curve as a writer.

    There’s a lot of alternative routes to being a writer and finding your audience.

  12. Howcome it is that when someone links to a story by a traditionally published author, wherein they lambast self-publishing… I’ve never heard of them? It happens like every single time.

    Huh. Traditional publishing must REALLY be working.

  13. I don’t read Jodi Picoult, but I understand she’s very popular.
    I don’t know why she proclaimed that aspiring authors should not self-publish, but I have little respect for her opinion on this since dogmatic statements automatically arouse my suspicion.

    It seems to me that we’ve gotten beyond the quality issues and marketing issues in self-publishing. There are road maps now–right here on this site is a good example–for anyone aspiring to self-publish.

    But she doesn’t seem to know that the biggest advantage to self-publishing is the ability to have control over your own publishing destiny! That, and we get out from under the financial thumb of publishers seriously unfavorable contracts.
    Self-publishing is not just about the aspiring author. Sad that JP doesn’t know.

  14. I might have resorted to a small *rant* about this yesterday when I saw the interview.

    I might have even posted about it on Facebook, G+, Twitter, etc.

    Here is an updated quote from her: (via a FB friend who emailed her)

    “‎You can’t separate the wheat from the chaff yet – there is a lot of garbage out there. Plus, although the publication is important it’s more important to have readers find you. The marketing and PR machine behind a brick and mortar publisher is still invaluable for that reason. Think of self pubbed success stories like Amanda Hocking. Did she self publish book 2? No – she signed with a publisher.”
    JP

    Ugh. Legacy B.S. – defending an antiquated and crumbling paradigm.

    Summer

    • Yes, and there’s no chaff IN traditional publishing, apparently.

      Also, it’d be a more persuasive argument if she had any idea how many books Hocking self-published before accepting a traditional deal (i.e., it was NOT Book No. 2).

      • And how many books Hocking self-published after the traditional deal. Only one for now, but she is still self-publishing, so…

    • Ms. Picoult said roughly the same thing to me when I asked her about it on Twitter; she also mentioned the “self-pub = giving up” stigma. I’m going to hit her back tonight and see what she says.

      Dan

      • But how many people self-publishing now are doing it becaue they have given up bc of rejections? I mean I know that’s the meme, but I think all the young people who grew up sharing everything online with social networks and blogs and websites…basically everyone under 30 who was moderately connected to the internet by college…is going to the internet first, because it’s there and it’s comfortable to them, and trad publishing has not proven its value is sufficiently worth 80% of everything of MY book for the rest of my gorram life. I went self-pub as a first resort, not a last. trad pub would be my last resort, at this point. And I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that way, for reasons that have nothing to do with rejection by the establishment.

  15. “And DO NOT SELF PUBLISH.”

    All you can do is laugh. And as such I start to doubt the value of any of the previous advice and bin the lot.

  16. I have read all of Picoult’s books, until the last 3. One I have on my growing TBR list, and the other two I have not even bothered to purchase. Too many wonderful self-published authors are demanding my attention.

  17. Her last comment about self-pub is really unfortunate… and I (obviously) don’t agree with it. Actually I’m not sure why anyone would go with a publisher at this point, unless their book went viral (like 50 shades).

    Focusing on the positive though, I really liked what she said here:

    “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

    Motivational!

  18. Methinks JD is a troll… and it worked.

  19. “and finally, when I know I have the perfect first line, I let myself start to write.”

    That really, really wouldn’t work for me. I always put together a first scene/chapter with the understanding that it’s going to be hammered out later. How can you ever write a perfect first line when the rest of the pages are blank?

    “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”

    It’s real. I could get behind her method of just bulldozing through and fixing it later as a means of getting something on paper. Sometimes a problem just takes a lot of thought, though.

    “I had over 100 rejection letters from agents. Finally, one woman who had never represented anyone in her life said she thought she could take me on. I jumped at the chance. She sold my first novel in three months.”

    That’s an amazing story. But what if that new agent hadn’t sold the story? What if Rowling had gotten rejected one time too many? Does that mean the books themselves were actually unworthy? Why shouldn’t books like that make money instead? Won’t readers bury an unworthy book just as surely as a slush pile?

    “Take a workshop course. You need to learn to give and get criticism and to write on demand. And DO NOT SELF PUBLISH.”

    Two good points, followed by a bad one. I guess I answered it above, and of course it’s what everyone here has latched on to first.

    • ~Finally, one woman who had never represented anyone in her life said she thought she could take me on. I jumped at the chance.~

      That’s scary. I mean, I wouldn’t jump at the chance, but run away as fast as I could. She got lucky here, really, really lucky.

      • Michael Kingswood

        What that says to me is she would have done just as well if she’d just sent the book to the editor herself instead of screwing around with agents. Her book sold itself.

        But now she’s stuck paying 15% for life. Good call. Not.

  20. DO NOT SELF PUBLISH. A lot of people have proceeded to add a lot to that statement, that she is against self publishers , that she is clinging to an obsolete model. But she hasn’t actually said that. Okay maybe Jodi Picoult is one of those writers who has a visceral hatred of the self publishers (I’ve met a few) but based on those five words WE DON’T KNOW. Lets face it, maybe as little as five years ago self publishing was something to be regarded at best with skepticism. So I’m going to take the view that until I come across information to the contra, her position is based on experience that is now out of date.

    • I absolutely agree with you. I think her stance is a combination of being (willfully?) uninformed and speaking from a sense of authorial self-preservation. After all, each new reasonably-priced, competent-to-skilled storyteller is one less reason to overpay for big names.

      With that in mind, her advice is no less of a disservice to new writers. Mockery must ensue!

      Dan

    • That may be true, but she came across as especially arrogant by putting it all in caps.

      • I wasn’t sure if it was an email interview or a transcribed telephone one and the emphasis was made by the interviewer. But you’re right.

  21. Picoult’s debut novel was published in 1992. If the timeline was similar then to what it is now, that means she was under contract in 1990. To have collected over 100 rejections, that must mean she began submitting it not later than 1989, perhaps even in 1988 or 1987. She graduated from college in 1987. So she started young, with a degree in creative writing from an Ivy League school.

    That was a different era then, I think. I wasn’t in the writing/publishing game then, but those who were tell me back then it was almost nothing like it is now. There were fewer hurdles to jump over, fewer gatekeepers to get by, more likelihood for a publisher to take a chance on an unpublished novelist.

    I suspect she’s out of touch with what entry into publisher-financed publishing (a.k.a. traditional, or legacy publishing) is like now. I suspect her fancy degree from a fancy university makes it difficult for her to understand what others without those benefits have to go through. And, having started young, she doesn’t understand the age hurdle that a writer that starts older has to jump through.

    Not sure I’ll be reading any of her books, unless I find something for 50 cents or less at a thrift store.

    • I don’t even think the Ivy Leagues were what they are now. She’s not just coming from a different publishing era, she’s coming from a different culture entirely.

      For instance, something like 60 percent of Harvard’s current undergraduates are on (significant) financial aid now. Yale seems to be the lone holdout in a widening effort to offer up to 80 percent off of tuition costs for families making less than 180k. IOW, most of the undergraduate students are no longer rich or legacy admits.

      Also, imho, I think there’s definitely been a more positive attitude shift among people in their 20s towards entrepreneurship because of the Mark Zuckerberg / Steve Jobs influence and the slew of profitable social media 2.0 startups.

      When I graduated from a top 10 university a few years ago, I told people I wanted to start a publishing company to self-publish, even thoguh I had yet to acquire any funding and was broke. The response was universally positive, even among the writers and other artists I knew.

      The career guidance given to seniors was geared towards finding workarounds to traditional career paths, since the recession was still bad. More than half of the student body used to find work on Wall Street before the economic crisis, and that became nearly impossible in the space of a few months. The new trend was to work in a start-up company or form your own.

  22. I tell you what; apparently no one at her traditional publishing house realized that you probably shouldn’t put three wolves on the cover of a book titled “Lone Wolf.”

    Dan

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