I love the word “no.” It is finality delivered economically. Zero wiggle room. You’re done, dude. No means no.
Unless you’re a pig-headed loon like me. Then “no” means, “figure out a way to make it a yes.”
Back in 2005, I presented 7th Son, a novel I’d spent three years writing and editing, to around 60 literary agents. Doggone, did I love this thing. Doggone, did I think it was a winner. But in hindsight, the book—a high-tech thriller about human cloning, implanted memories and seven “everymen” clones tasked with taking down a villain that’d make Cobra Commander wet the bed—had everything going against it.
It was a crazy genre-blend of sci-fi, conventional thriller, and military adventure . . . with dashes of political thriller and horror tossed in to further muddy its genre classification. There was no romance. There were seven main protagonists, all clones of one man, all with similar names. Perhaps most damning, the book was 1,200 pages long. (A typical thriller clocks in at 400 pages, max.) I hadn’t written a book. I’d written a phonebook.
Guess what happened when I pitched this The Stand-sized tome to agents? Why, there’s no guessing involved. I heard no, no, and more no . . . and each one well-deserved. I didn’t play by any of the rules: I didn’t commit to the tropes of a specific genre, and crafted a book so long, it was absolutely unsellable. The system didn’t kick me in the balls—I did that on my own, thank you very much.
“Crestfallen” doesn’t come close to describing how I felt in 2005. What a waste of time! Sure, I’d learned how to write a book, which would come in handy when I wrote another one . . . but you might agree that that’s a bittersweet pill to swallow. My epic conspiracy-soaked cloning thriller was deader than disco.
And yet, circumstances well beyond my control presented an opportunity to resuscitate my creation. I discovered podcasting (think downloadable internet radio) in 2005, and learned of authors who were releasing self-produced serialized audiobooks of their unpublished manuscripts. I smelled an emerging trend. I also smelled an opportunity to satisfy my personal curiosity: was 7th Son worthy of an audience (as I thought it was), or was it indeed an impossible genre-flawed sell?
In early 2006, I chose to chop up the manuscript into thirds (act one became 7th Son: Descent, act two became “book two,” etc.), and roll my own serialized audiobook. I bought a $50 microphone, learned how to create a website, bought a URL and some server space, and got working. I was an all-thumbs technological neophyte, but I was committed to learn.
To this day, I can’t fully explain why I chose to do this—why I chose to ignore the gatekeepers, and create even more effort for myself. I guess I was absolutely convinced the story was a quality one. I guess I wanted proof as to whether I was crazy for writing the thing, or not.
Can you guess what happened? The very book that was universally rejected—the book that I’d seemingly sabotaged by its genre-blurring and monstrous length—found an audience of tens of thousands. I promoted the book the best I could on a zero budget. 7th Son listeners evangelized the book to others. A community formed around my book and its clone characters.
By early 2007, I had a literary agent for the trilogy. By mid-2007, an editor at St. Martin’s Press who was familiar with 7th Son invited me to write a groundbreaking “for-hire” supernatural thriller novel (I didn’t own the property, but was instrumental in its creation and execution). A few months later, 7th Son: Descent was picked up for publication by St. Martin’s.
By late last year, the 7th Son trilogy was optioned to Warner Bros for film development, and is now officially “in development.” And just weeks ago, 7th Son: Descent debuted on North American bookstore shelves. A dead book now lives.
My fans—whom I believe are completely responsible for the book’s success both online and now in print—aren’t surprised by this. They love this book. They think it’s a great book, and I love them for that. I, on the other hand, still can’t believe it really happened. For me, this is all a dream, and I’m waiting for the alarm clock to go off.
Before that happens, let me share a few things I’ve learned during this seven-year-long adventure. These insights have an artistic/writerly slant, but I believe they are absolutely applicable in your own passion project, or in everyday life.
Give it your all: Don’t phone it in, ever. Dedicate yourself fully to your passion, and see it through.
Believe in what you’re doing: You’ll probably question the path you’re on, and your faith (in yourself, or your project) will waver. That’s natural, but never, ever let it beat out your passion.
Don’t take “no” for an answer: Or at least, not at first. If you hear a lot of no’s, examine your project for problems (as I did—I realized I could chop my monstrous manuscript into thirds) and make tweaks.
Take another route: This is probably the most revelatory lesson I’ve learned. If your passion isn’t playing nice with the established rules, make up your own. Jump fences! There’s no guarantee that you’ll experience success (as viewed through traditionalists’ eyes), but never be afraid to fight for your passions when it’s appropriate.
I hope you can now see why I love the word “no.” Whenever I hear it, it inspires me to realized fight relentlessly for a “yes.” More important: You can too, in whatever you do.
J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.