“In order to be a writer, you really do have to have this balance of ego and extreme humility.” — Mindy McGinnis
Mindy McGinnis is the award-winning author of nine novels to date, including Not a Drop to Drink, The Female of the Species, and A Madness So Discreet. She also hosts the writing podcast and blog Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire.
I interviewed her about the ups and downs of being a full-time writer and distilled her wisdom into eight lessons that provide a glimpse into the world of authordom.
1. The Road to Publishing Is Long and Paved with Rejection
“I started writing when I was in college, and I wrote four novels before my fifth one was finally picked up by an agent and published, which was Not a Drop to Drink. It’s post-apocalyptic survival. I was trying for about ten years to get an agent. Now, that was on and off — it wasn’t constant querying. Maybe two/three-month breaks between feeling so dejected I couldn’t continue anymore.
That’s something I like to tell aspiring writers: I was querying for ten years, and among my published writer friends the average is about seven years. And while that might be kind of a bummer, I think it’s also positive because it lets people know that you don’t have to be an overnight success. You can wait. You can plod along, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s not gonna happen for you; it just means that time is moving in that manner for you, and it’s gonna be a slower crawl.
Honestly, when I look back at the work I was querying at the beginning, I needed to write four mediocre — well, maybe two mediocre and two really bad — novels before I wrote one that was worthy of representation.”
2. Elevator Pitches Help Sell Books
“Using comparative titles is pretty typical. For Female of the Species, I called it ‘Dexter, if Dexter were a teenage girl that only killed rapists.’ Or, I think I just referred to it as ‘rape revenge/vigilante justice.’ I know that my editor pitched it in-house as ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo goes to high school.’
If you’re already published, you have an editor working with you, and so he’s the one — or she is the one — trying to build up in-house enthusiasm for it. And usually comp titles are the way to go. That can be really fun. It’s like taking things that you really love, and you’re not taking characters, or voice, or even plot. Sometimes you’re just taking the feel of it.
So, when I’ll pitch A Madness So Discreet, I’ll say that it is American Horror Story Season 2 meets Sherlock. And deeply, it has nothing to do with those things, but that captures the feel: insane asylums, detection, and murder. You can find TV shows or movies or books that are easy mashups as a really quick way to convey what you’re trying to create with something new and different.
When you’re already working with an editor, you’re able to put two or three pages in front of them. You write a synopsis or an outline, or pitch an idea but have more room. You don’t have to do that quick elevator pitch and grab their attention, but that does come later, when you’re trying to pitch at a book festival, or in interviews when people want those quick, easy digestibles.”
3. Authors Can Find Success in Multiple Genres
“A Madness So Discreet, my Gothic historical thriller, is set in 1890. Before I started writing that book, I read novels that were from that time period, like eight or nine, back to back, just to absorb sentence structure and the way people spoke and the vocabulary — all those elements that will really create an immersive historical experience.
And then I wrote the book in like three weeks. I didn’t read at all while I was writing that book. I was just trying to maintain that status quo of that voice and that immersive world while I was writing it.
When it comes to beyond the craft of actually jumping genres and selling across multiple genres, I think YA [Young Adult] is kind of forgiving, in that you’re able to be more than one thing when you’re writing YA.
But I haven’t had a major hit yet. I haven’t hit The New York Times; I haven’t had a huge bestseller. And sometimes if you are a writer that really blows the doors off the barn with something amazing, they want you to keep replicating that. They want you to keep giving your audience that thing. So, in some ways, it’s a good thing to be a midlister because you are free to experiment a little bit more and wander into genres that otherwise you might be limited with in your success, which is a weird thing to say, but success can limit you.”
4. Rewriting a Manuscript From Scratch Is Sometimes Necessary
“I was about twenty when I started writing The Female of the Species. I revisited the idea fifteen years later, so a long time had passed. When you’re working with a very old manuscript, and you have improved (hopefully) from where you were when you wrote it, I advise taking that core, general seed of the idea and just starting over. You’re never gonna be able to inject what you need into those old words because they’re kind of dead. They don’t have — at least mine — didn’t have what they needed in order to become what The Female of the Species is.
Once you’ve realized that the words you generated in the beginning of the process aren’t doing their job, you just scrap ’em. You just get rid of everything. For me, it wasn’t revision so much as it was complete and total starting from the beginning. I filed a new document. The only thing I brought over from that old manuscript was the title and two of the characters’ names.
That is actually a much better approach when you’re working with a manuscript that you wrote when you were not as good of a writer as you are now. If you’re trying to revise with already-existing words, you’re just kind of tinkering, and it’s gonna be very hard to reshape that into something that reflects the writer you are now.”
5. Writing Dark Fiction Is About Honesty, Not Shock Value
“In horror films, there’s a difference between a slasher flick and something that makes the audience actually cringe because it’s honest.
There’s a scene in the Zodiac movie that David Fincher directed when the Zodiac killer is stabbing someone, and it’s so casual, and it’s so quick, and there’s not blood. You just see the body, and then it’s just one, two, three, four, five, stab, stab, stab. And he walks away. It’s so casual that it sticks with you.
When you can write violence like that, it’s not there for shock value. It’s like ‘This is what this would look like.’ That’s what I always operate with. Not what’s shocking, what’s going to make people be like ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe that happened!’ I want people to be like ‘Oh my God…that’s what an actual stabbing would look like.’ And walk away from that disturbed.
As far as exploring darker themes, it’s funny because people ask me that a lot, because all of my books tend to be particularly dark. People ask me, ‘Is it difficult to write these things? Is it hard?’ And the answer is ‘no.’ [evil laughter] This is how my mind works. This is what I think about. This is the place my mind goes. I would never be able to write a happy book. So, for me, it’s the same as asking someone, ‘How can you stand to write such happy things all the time?’ Like, for me, that’s actually a struggle.”
6. Being a Full-Time Author Can Mean Publishing a Book Every Year
“Generally speaking, you want to have a book out a year. I mean, that’s a choice. This is what I do for a living. I don’t work outside of writing, and so I have to have a book a year or else I won’t survive.
But people take breaks all the time. Justina Ireland, she wrote two books, Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, and that was in 2013 and 2014. And then she didn’t have another book come out until four years later, and that was Dread Nation, which hit The New York Times bestseller list. So, she took a big break and came out swinging with a New York Times bestselling book. It’s up to you and what you’re generating, and how you want to operate within your career.”
7. You Have to Stay Self-Disciplined with Your Writing Routine
“Generally, you’re given a due date to turn in your full, complete first draft. When I’m drafting, I tend to write 1,000 words a day, which is about five pages. If I can hit 1,500, great. But generally, it’s 1,000 or 5,000 for the week. So, if it is Friday and I only have 3,500 words, then I’m not taking the weekend off, and I gotta write 1,500 before we restart the cycle on Monday.
When you write for a living, the trick to keep yourself going is ‘I have to pay my bills, so I have to sit my ass down and write.’ There’s no choice involved.
I will delay. I will find other things to do because procrastination exists in all of us. Because we’re scared. We’re scared we’re not gonna be able to do it this time, and it happens to me, too. But it doesn’t matter. I have a due date. If I don’t hit the due date, I’m not gonna get paid. I have to have the money in order to pay my bills and pay for my house and have food to eat. So that’s all the motivation I need.”
8. Writers Must Balance Ego and Humility
“The advice I would give my younger self would probably be ‘don’t think you’re so awesome.’ Because I was so convinced that I was so great and that nobody understood my genius, and the world was missing out on true talent. And, oh my God, I was writing crap. I was producing junk.
But it’s interesting because — and I’ve talked about this before on my podcast with other writers — in order to be a writer, you really do have to have this balance of ego and extreme humility. Because you can’t be working on something believing that it sucks. You will never finish. You will never write it if you believe it sucks, so you have to have that ‘Oh yeah, this is awesome!’ You have to believe that. But you also have to be able to realize that it might suck so that when someone gives you feedback, you’re like, ‘Oh okay, yeah, I see that.’ It’s an interesting balancing act.”
Mindy McGinnis’s upcoming YA mystery, The Initial Insult, is an Edgar Allan Poe retelling set in Appalachia. It’s available for pre-order and will be released in February 2021!
The above content is an abridged version of my video interview with Mindy McGinnis. You can listen to the full interview below, complete with added visuals. Whatever you do, keep writing.