A few years ago, I decided to change careers. The only problem was that I had no idea which career to pursue next. I tried to think my way to the answer. Whatever I was meant to do in this lifetime must be something that came naturally to me, I reasoned. But I was a little too close to the subject (i.e., me) to be objective. And besides, if you want to know what your passion is, it’s best to feel—not think— your way to the answer.
So I turned to my friends. I asked them to list the things they felt I was really good at. I collected their responses, put them in an Excel spreadsheet, and normalized their answers. (For instance, I considered “running” and “jogging” to be essentially the same activity for the purposes of this experiment, though none of my friends listed either activity— or any other sporty activity for that matter). Then I sorted the activities by frequency (how often they appeared).
I was blown away by the unanimity of my friends’ answers. Storytelling topped the list. Drawing relationships between things came second. I had no idea at the time that writing novels about someone who pieces together seemingly unrelated clues would hit the mark.
Fast forward to the present day, and I’ve created several spreadsheets to track my progress as a novelist. You might consider it a nerdy way to manage my second career but, as I always say, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in nerdiness. Nerds are reliable. So is data. Try as you might, you cannot argue with data.
One spreadsheet tracks responses from agents I queried. I wish I received more personalized rejections but I understand the time constraints of people who are inundated with query letters and sample chapters. Unfortunately, they offer no meaningful data to explain why I received more “not a great fit” responses than “please send me the full manuscript” (though I’ve received several of the latter— yippee!).
So, in search of meaningful feedback by avid mystery readers, I entered a competition. Several judges read and scored my work, and most of them were kind enough to write comments to substantiate their numerical ratings. Normalizing those comments was a lot trickier than normalizing activities I’m good at. But the end result was just as clear-cut. The writing was “excellent” and “evocative.” What was lacking was “more dialog,” which struck me as ironic because my background is in screenwriting. Other comments confirmed some niggling concerns I had about other aspects of my novel. But, as I wrote earlier, you can’t argue with data. It turns out I wasn’t alone in identifying those areas (which, thankfully, are not plentiful). As one judge wrote, “with just a few small tweaks, you’ll have something really special.” And other judges echoed that sentiment using different-but-similar noun-verb-modifier combinations.
In the end, after I recovered from the disappointment of not having won the competition, my experience turned out to be immensely rewarding. I’m not yet ready to go back to my manuscript and tweak it on the advice of a handful of anonymous judges. It’s already in the hands of several literary agents. But when I have an agent and publisher, I’ll happily use this data to inform any revisions that will render my novel more successful. For now, I have already begun using it to draft my next novel. And who knows? Maybe this sequel will be recognized instantly as “something really special” without the spreadsheets to back it up.
Thanks this week go to judges 735, 613, 740, and 724 in the Daphne du Maurier Award competition. Some of your comments made me cringe (because I should have caught those issues myself), and some made me laugh out loud (especially the ones about my protagonist’s peculiarities). But all of them provided valid— and valuable— data that I’m putting to good use!