Build a Better Battering Ram

“When do I begin approaching agents?” I get that question at least once a week, and my answer is always the same: “When your novel is done. And by that I mean, well done!”

I think that it is human nature to be eager. When we are working on a novel, and we’re excited about it, and the end is in sight, it’s very common for the writer to look ahead and try to figure out how to beat down the doors of New York Publishing or Hollywood.

Very often, they will ask me to do it for them, but that won’t work. I can show you where the doors to the publishing house are. I can introduce you to some of the gatekeepers. But when it comes to storming the castle, what you really need is a great battering ram—and that battering ram is your novel. You see, all of the gatekeepers have their own orders: allow only those with powerful novels.

Nothing else matters as much as your novel when it comes to getting in doors. You can have a charming smile and a great family lineage, but that won’t break down doors.

Now, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you might understand a bit about how battering rams were made. As a young man, my father was once asked to help a neighbor knock down a barn. My dad decided to get a log and use it as a battering ram, so he took a fallen tree from the forest and had me, my brother, and some other men try to use it to knock down the barn. Well, even that old barn was stouter than it looked, and we shredded several trees trying to knock it down.

With real castle doors, you needed something strong. A battering ram is built from a young, strong tree, not an old rotten log. The builder then would take the tree and wrap it in bands of steel or brass to help strengthen it, and they’d fit a metal front to the log so that it could withstand impact to the castle walls. In Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron went so far as to forge a special metal front to his ram that was inscribed with magical spells for breaking the castle gates, and thus “Grond crawled on.”

So what does that have to do with your manuscript?

Many authors that I meet haven’t finished their novels, yet they want to beat down that castle door right now. But they’re just not ready. They’ve got nothing to show.

Sure, you can talk to the gatekeepers. Editors and agents often hear great pitches for novels, but are almost always disappointed to find that the novel itself falls short of its promise. So the agent or editor can’t accept your unfinished novel. They won’t even look at it, in most cases. To do so is a waste of their time.

You need to realize that your novel is a battering ram. It is what will break open the doors to the publishing world for you. It’s not your strong shoulder that will do it. You can’t break down the doors of publishing by force of personal will, or by flashing a dazzling smile. You need a powerful novel.

A lot of people don’t understand that. I recently had a client who brought an unfinished novel to me and asked that I break down the doors to New York and Hollywood for him. That doesn’t work. I insisted that the client finish the battering ram before we even try.

If you’ve got a novel that every editor has seen and rejected, think of it as an old dead tree, rotting away. Maybe it’s time to try something fresh.

If you want to send in your first draft to an editor, ask yourself, “Is this book powerful enough to break down the doors of the New York publishing industry?” Often it’s not. Often you need to strengthen it, do the equivalent of wrapping it in iron bands and casting an iron front for it.

How do you do that? By rewriting the novel. Study it carefully. Search out its weaknesses and fix them. Maybe your weakness will be poor descriptions, or a plot that has a flimsy third act. You have to mend those weaknesses, reinforce the novel. And still, that probably won’t be enough.

Go beyond looking for obvious weaknesses and figure out how you can add new strengths to your novel. You want your novel to be powerful, not “nearly adequate.” This might require you to look closely at your writing and create a compelling new voice for your protagonist, or perhaps go through the entire manuscript and add engaging new hooks to the beginning and end of every scene.

It’s only when your battering ram is finished, when it is the modern-day equivalent of Grond, that you dare approach those castle doors in New York and Hollywood. Yes, even with a great battering ram, you might need to slam it hard into a few doors before you knock one down, but at least you’ll have the tool you need to do it.


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