Advanced and Foundational Craft at The Algonkian Author Salon


Whatever the stage of your project or writing life, know that all writers, if they desire to become commercially published, must cross the Epiphany Line sooner or later.

by Michael Neff

First of all, what is the "Epiphany Line"?  The EL is a state of mind crucial to any writer desirous of commercial publication, and one which clearly divides the 99% of aspiring authors from the 1% of those who've learned the hard way how challenging it is to have their expertise and projects taken seriously by professionals in the publishing business. But are the percentages so drastic as depicted here? Yes, and probably even more so. Consider the very small number of first time authors who emerge with publishing contracts from major houses, or even well-regarded indie presses (a few hundred total?), and then compare to the hundreds of thousands of writers in America struggling valiantly yet vainly to accomplish this same feat.  Viewed from this perspective, we come to a knowledge of true writer pathos on a scale previously unimagined: instances of duress and disappointment inflicted each day on hundreds if not thousands of writers as their manuscripts get routinely rejected by agents.

But how does the EL finally come about, or rather, fail to come about?  Before the line can be crossed, before a writer can enter a state of mind that enables a forward movement towards success (if the desire is to become commercially published), he or she, by one means or another, must view their project through the eyes of an editorial professional in their chosen genre. We've said this before. But why doesn't it come easy? It isn't natural, has to be learned, and circumstances of one kind or another arise to prevent this vision. Whether it be a failure to properly immerse in the contemporary world of their chosen genre (reading books and interviews, studying deals at Publisher’s Marketplace, talking with editors at conferences or elsewhere), or an inability to rise above limitations imposed by their current writer’s group (consistently providing encouraging yet unproductive advice), or bad advice from those they believe possess an adequate comprehension of the current book market (e.g., freelance editors of one stripe or another who are removed from current market realities or who fail to differentiate necessary tropes from overused tropes), the writer is deprived of the consciousness necessary to make crucial edits or changes to the story. 

Put quite simply, if you write mysteries loved by your friends and fellow writers, and perhaps even your paid freelance editor (who most likely has never worked in the New York publishing business), but can’t produce a thing other than pale imitations of Miss Marple, no editor or agent who represents the mystery genre will ever take you or your work seriously. 

Now the question becomes, how do writers transcend life in the 99% and cross the EL to the one percent promised land?  What might lead them to a cognizance of reality? It can happen in various ways, by accident or no, but always preceded by trial and error groping as false signals are received concerning the commercial viability of their writing (see above) thus leading to false confidence.  Regardless, the writer naturally grows frustrated and tired of unsuccessful efforts (if they‘re smart), and if determined not to fail, seeks new sources of information and inspiration. Perhaps by happenstance the writer reads an article that clicks with them, or speaks to a professional who waves the red flag regarding what they’re doing wrong or what is specifically missing from their voice or manuscript that results in rejection after rejection--whatever the source of cognizance, the writer, perhaps for the first time, declines to fall back on old sources of corroboration and at last recognizes the previous futility, as well as the state of false confidence, and in the next breath, understands what lies ahead--perhaps many months of rethinking and rewrites.

If you are near the Epiphany Line, or you’ve crossed it already, a lot of what we say here will resonate with you.  If you have endured months or years of rejections, perhaps you need to point your toe over the line, just to test.  And don’t feel down about all this, or discouraged. Learn from it. Understand that all writers make the same mistakes, learn the same lessons, fall down and get up. The neophyte mystery writer holding her Miss Marple close and dear, as she might a mother’s warmth, must one day leave home and apply for a job with a suitable resume.