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Trade Secrets: Which Ones Should We Keep?


Recently I was watching a video where an artist was talking about “trade secrets” in art. He was recounting the times when he was just beginning in art and people would refuse to tell him what program they used for digital art or what tools they used. They saw him as potential future competition and didn’t want to give him a leg up, because it might mean he beats them out of a sale or commission or some such later down the road. The artist who made the video thought that was absurd. So did I. But I’ve seen the same thing happen to writers.
As writers, we’re constantly refining how we do things. We try to learn how to craft fresher plots or deeper characterization or more lively dialogue or more gripping tension. None of us have “arrived.” We’re all growing and refining. And many times, the way we learn new things is to experiment with those techniques other writers have shared. Their way may not work for you or me, but it may give us an idea for something new to try. Some new way to grow. And even when it doesn’t, there’s an important lesson to be learned every time a writer talks about how he arrives at his final story. That lesson is this:

There’s no one way to get there.

If you could internalize one truth to help you grow as a writer, that would be it. There is no one way to get there. Writers succeed when they follow the path that works for them, even when it’s full of false starts and detours and things tried and failed. Every step is part of the journey.
So, when it comes to technique and tools to reach success, sharing seems like a no-brainer. Of course we share. For one, every time you share your methods, it makes you look deeper at those methods. It makes you evaluate what you’re doing, and that’s good for you. Plus, there is serious fallacy in the idea that helping another writer somehow lessens our own chance at publication. Here’s why: publication comes about because of a weird concoction of skill plus timing plus pure luck. So no matter how many good writers are out there sending out manuscripts, some lucky things have to happen for those manuscripts to find homes. Luck! Some writers would recoil at the very thought that “luck” played a part in publication. It’s all skill! It’s all hard work! It’s all research and networking and smarts! Yeah, it’s all of that, plus luck.
So how does luck play a part?
Your manuscript needs to come to the attention of the acquiring editor who will love it enough to convince a company to invest a large amount of money into it. So how do you know which editor that is? Huh? How? Do you know every editor and their preferences? Does your agent? (If he says he does, he’s definitely stretching the truth. He means he knows the preferences of all the editors he knows, and that is not the same thing.) Every day great manuscripts do manage to land on the desk of the editor who will love them. It happens every day. But in that same day, great manuscripts land on the desk of editors who do not love them. That’s why all those best-selling authors have stories of how many rejection letters they got. Those letters weren’t a badge of “not good enough.” They were just a simple statement of “not for me.”
No matter what anyone tells you, there is both an objective and a subjective side to publishing. Anyone who says, “It’s all subjective” is wrong. There are many manuscripts out there who have no shot at publication for objective reasons. They simply aren’t ready to be published. Or they simply could not be published at this time. Or the publisher just added a book similar to yours to their list. But anyone who says it’s all objective is wrong also. An objectively good book will not be right for every editor and every house. A single publisher simply cannot bear the load and must pick and choose among good manuscripts based on a degree of personal preference. And that’s subjective.
Let’s think about classic books. There are many classic books that have some absolutely wonderful things about them but also contain content that could not be published today (and not because our kids need dumbed down books, because they don’t.) Some older books have some blatantly racist content that didn’t jump out at people long ago, but certainly would today. Some older books are built on a class system we have trouble seeing as “acceptable” but which the book clearly does. Some are too casually sexist. Some are too casually violent. And these things jar against the modern reader in a way that would make a publisher pass on them today, not because the writer lacked skills, but because the book doesn’t work as well now.
But for every manuscript out there that simply isn’t going to get published (or not without some serious revision that’s beyond what editors normally want to push you through), there are also many that are great (or near great) that simply have to land in the right place at the right time. And that’s where luck comes in. And you cannot improve luck by hoarding your “trade secrets.”
Are there legitimate secrets?
There are things that you shouldn’t share, but none of them are because of competition. First, it’s a good idea not to talk too much about a work in progress. Talking isn’t writing, but it can drain away some of the creative energy that should be spent in writing. The more you describe your work in progress, the more your creative brain (or muse, if you like to think of it that way) thinks you’ve already written it and will resist giving you what you need when it comes time to write. Your best energy and enthusiasm will feel a bit drained. Too much detailed talk about a work in progress has killed many a book. Now, having said that: some people are actually galvanized by talking about a work in progress. If you’re very outgoing, you may find that talking about the book makes the writing easier and more energetic. If you’re one of those people, ignore the “don’t talk” advice. But for me, talking about a work in progress can easily be fatal to the piece.
Don’t Share What Isn’t Yours
Many writers guard the contact information for their editor or their agent pretty closely. They feel it isn’t their place to increase the deluge these folks are already swimming through. Plus, nearly every writer who has ever been generous with contact information has at least one “horror story” about someone who then wrote to the editor or agent and said, “So-and-so recommended I contact you …” when no such recommendation was actually made. Sadly, the folks who name-drop inappropriately also tend to be among those whose manuscripts aren’t ready for publication. So the editor or agent is looking at a weak manuscript and wondering why the writer would recommend they read it. Some agents and editors are onto this ploy, but no one is happy when it happens. As a result many writers feel like the contact information to editors and agents isn’t really theirs to share. If the editor or agents wants submissions, their contact information will be all over the web.
Remember Sharing Can Spread
Many writers like to “let off steam” about agents or editors who did or said things the writer didn’t like. They’ll share “horror” stories about bad editing or rude responses. They’ll complain about a lack of courtesy in Agent A or Editor B. And they’ll almost always fall back on “but it’s true” if anyone is bothered by the sharing. There are two problems with this kind of sharing. First, when it comes back to the editor or agent (and it will–it’s like a cosmic law), it’s going to upset the person.

Now, before this got back to that editor, that editor had moved on. He wasn’t thinking about your manuscript or you, and he would have given the next manuscript a clean, unbiased read. But now you’ve made a mark on the busy editor’s memory and it’s not a good mark. Not only that, other editors or agents who hear about this will be leery when your stuff crosses their desks. Will you talk badly about them too? Never, ever, ever give off the vibe that you’re “hard to deal with.” Honestly, there are far too many talented writers who are easy to deal with.

The second problem with sharing your negative editing or agenting stories is that they aren’t fair. You may have caught the editor or agent at a bad moment. Or something you said may have been misunderstood or misconstrued in the moment and it’s all based on a misunderstanding that you’re now blowing up into an incident. Or the conflict is personal and not something other writers will encounter with that person. Or you just might not completely understand how submissions and rejections work, and someday you’re going to be so embarrassed that you took it personally.
Honestly, not every interaction I’ve ever had with an editor or agent has been wonderful. Most really have. I like editors and agents a lot because they love books and reading and that means we automatically have a lot in common. But they’re also people. That means not every experience I’ve had has been a good one. I’ve had my feelings hurt. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve sulked. But then I moved on, and I didn’t ever namedrop that person in a negative way, because I honestly don’t know if my experience was a quirk, an oddity. Plus, I may easily have to work with that person again sometime, and I just don’t have time to build myself a nemesis. And, frankly, neither do you.
So when it comes to sharing. Share your skills and your tools. You’ll build good feeling. You’ll increase your own skills (as well as your reputation for having skills). And you really aren’t going to suffer from the competition, but you can benefit in good will, networking, and increased understanding in how we do this mysterious thing called writing.


With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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