With 2019 about to come to a close, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on goals and dreams and what’s ahead vs. what I’ve left behind. As you might know from my bio, my writing journey has been less than smooth, culminating in what I jokingly refer to as the Summer of Doom. This October, after 5 years of writing, 13 completed novels (5 queried, 2 on submission with publishers), and multiple hundreds of rejections, the high-profile agent I had spent years and tears trying to snag, the agent that was my only external sign of success, the agent who was propping open the heavy door of traditional publishing for me, terminated our contract.
(I always have to reiterate here that she was very kind and rational about it, so no hard feelings toward her at all, it was the right thing to do)
For a type-A overachiever like me, all this felt like the apocalypse.
I wanted to give up.
I worked through it on my own and I’m in a MUCH better place now, but it occurred to me that one of the things that nudged me into such a dark mindset was the fact that we so often only hear about the success stories. The internet feels flooded with huge book deals, college graduate prodigies, rags-to-riches fairy tales. And sure, those are nice stories! I totally understand why people love them. However, I can’t help but feel that if I’d known how RARE that kind of success is, not to mention that it’s often a mirage anyways, maybe I’d have been better prepared to face this industry. Maybe I would have gone in with a healthier attitude. And maybe I could have avoided being so crushed by it.
So here I am, 5 years in with (fingers crossed) many more to go, offering my advice as a currently FAILED writer. No Cinderella stories, no filters, no punches pulled. But still lots of hope for the future.
Here we go:
- Don’t underestimate how hard it is. This is the first and single biggest thing on this list. Everything that comes after is directly related. When I first started writing, I had no IDEA how difficult it would be. It’s embarrassing to look back at how naive I was, working on that terrible first novel. Sure, I would say that I knew it was difficult or that the odds were against me or that it would take a long time. I paid lip service to that elephant in the room that was everyone else’s skepticism. But I didn’t share it. I would be the exception, don’t you see? I’d be the one-in-a-million writer who made it. Well, as you can tell, that grand plan fell on its face and now I’m standing on a pile of unpublished manuscripts and form rejections that did nothing more than teach me the same lesson over and over and over: It’s Hard. The writing, the querying, the publishing. All of it. Take how hard you think it will be and multiply that by ten thousand. Even if you DO hit gold and make it into the echelons of lucky writers who hit a home run on their first try (please forgive me for hating you a little), it’s only delaying the inevitable. Because the sucky parts will come. Maybe it’s your second book flopping, or your second series being cancelled. I can’t tell you how many excited debuts I’ve seen appear, make a lot of noise for a few months, and then vanish without a trace. Even in just 5 years, I’ve seen the cycle crush both aspirants and authors alike. Don’t be like them. Don’t underestimate this beast. Unless you’re insanely fortunate, publishing can be a meat grinder where only the toughest survive. So thicken your skin and brace yourself for the worst.
- Don’t be precious. If that sounded bad then hold onto your butts, I’m just getting started. Because my next piece of advice is to stop being precious. At the conference I work at (The NYC Algonkian Pitch Conference if anyone’s curious) I see sooooo many people come in with this cherished manuscript that they’ve spent a decade of their lives perfecting and honing and shaping and loving. Reader, don’t do this. There are probably one in a BILLION people who spend 10 years on a manuscript that’s headed for the big leagues. But the likelihood that you’re Donna Tartt? Very small. And if you want to be successful in genre fiction, even smaller. Now, if your GOAL is to write the next great American novel, then be my guest to agonize over every sentence. But if your goal is to make a living writing books, then you need to get used to treating them like the T-shirts they shoot out at concerts. I’ve written, edited, perfected, and then shelved 13 books. Each of those books was a lottery ticket that didn’t pay out. But even if they HAD paid out, then I would have needed more books, more ideas, more things to throw to whatever crowd I’d managed to gather around my work. I love the way Neil Gaiman talks about how the solution to everything is to create more art. And I think the logical corollary to that is to create LOTS of art. Do as much as you can, in as many ways as you can. You never know what you might discover. I don’t regret any of those books that didn’t get published, because they made me a better writer and they gave me experience that tinkering endlessly on one project would never have provided. And going forward, I plan to be even LESS protective and cautious and coddling of my work. Produce quality material, yes, but don’t let perfectionism get in the way of forward momentum (I’m speaking as much to myself as to anyone else on this).
- Look forward. If you haven’t sensed a theme of this post yet, I’ll tell you what it is: Rejection. Rejection is inevitable in the arts and writing is no exception. You WILL be rejected and it WILL hurt. Every time. The only antidote I’ve found for the constant crush of NO is to have a plan. Be looking ahead. Maybe that means having your next 3 projects scheduled out so you’re always working on something new. Maybe it means having a backup list of agents/publishers to submit to. Maybe it just means giving yourself little rewards for every step, including rejections (because those are steps, if painful ones). This ties into the last tip, in that you shouldn’t spend forever on one project that might not even have legs. But it also ties into life. Don’t let the grind of querying and submitting turn your spirit into pulp (again, speaking from experience on this one). Get excited about things to come. One of my tried-and-true ways to snap myself out of creative blues is to visit the running list of ideas I keep on my phone. Going through the wacky and wonderful bits that I’ve gathered for future books always gets me excited, no matter how down I am. Because those new ideas are shiny, alluring, filled with possibility. Is writing a bit of a gambling addiction? Maybe. Does it stop me? Absolutely not.
- Find WRITING friends. The importance of this cannot be overstated. I have a fantastic fiancé and a great family and a network of wonderful friends, but none of them can even come close to empathizing with the bone-deep weariness of being a failed artist. They can sympathize sure. But it’s not the same. No matter where you are in your writing/publishing journey, I highly recommend finding or building a group of writers who are in a similar phase of their careers and whose work you enjoy. You can beta read for each other, brainstorm together, or maybe just offer support and encouragement. It doesn’t have to be in person. I’m a part of one virtual and one real-world writing group and both of them have been invaluable in keeping me sane this past year. Like so many things in life, it’s good to have the grounding/validation of other people going through the same trials and struggles and frustrations. And it keeps you from thinking social media is the real world…
- Learn impulse control. On that note, let’s talk about productivity. Yes, I know the irony of saying this as I spend several hours putting together a blog post (it’s educational guys, c’mon). But in my wise-old-age of 27, I’ve come to believe that the single biggest factor in worldly success (that’s in your power to manage!) is impulse control. If you haven’t heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment I highly recommend checking it out, but basically the psychological community seems to have agreed that the ability to delay gratification and control your own impulses determines success better than a whole slew of other things. Now, this might not be 100% accurate for a whole bunch of jobs where various -isms change the rules. But this is VERY true of writing. The problem with writing is that no one’s looking over your shoulder. No one’s paying attention to how many hours you spend on Twitter or Reddit or Imgur or Pintrest. And I absolutely speak as one of the guilty in this. If there were a Procrastinator’s Anonymous, I’d be its queen. It’s quite literally painful to think of the hours and hours and hours I spent on things that didn’t matter, didn’t bring me joy, and certainly didn’t add words to the page. Miraculously, I still managed to write a bunch, but imagine how much more I could have done if I’d been more able to manage my attention! Maybe I’d have written something that sold…
- Separate publishing from writing. Which leads me into this. V.E. Schwab has a great quote that she tweets every once in a while where she says “Writing is magical. Publishing is not.” I can tell you from deep in the failure-hole that this is 100% accurate. Everyone gets into writing because they love it (if you don’t, what on Earth are you doing?). Maybe you’ve been writing since you were a kid, or maybe it’s an escape from your hectic/boring/frustrating life. For whatever reason, writers are drawn to writing because there’s some kind of beautiful spark there, the joy of making something. Unfortunately for all of us artistic flower-children, publishing is a business and it’s a brutal one. I can tell you from experience that the Big 5 houses are packed to the gills with lovely, nice, bookish people who are passionate about stories. Doesn’t matter. The house needs to make money and everything boils down to bottom line. It’s incredibly hard to remember this when you’re swimming in rejections, but it is true that some things aren’t about quality. I’ve seen the most beautiful, moving novels in the world (not mine, I promise) turned down because marketing teams can’t place them. If the powers that be don’t think your book can sell, traditional publishing won’t want it. However, that does not devalue your work. You can still be very proud of what you created, even if it doesn’t succeed in the market. And acknowledging the legitimate flaws in your work can be an act of creative rejuvenation, not the immolation of your precious muse (see what I did there?). Don’t take the business personally. Grow and learn and absorb the necessary data. But the sooner you (and me!) can separate the writing process from the publishing monster, the happier you’ll be.
- Protect your creativity. This is perhaps a combination of 5 and 6, but I’d like to take it one step further. We live in a chaotic world (Is that the understatement of the year or what?). Reading the news these days feels like drinking water from a fire hydrant. Add in social media, industry newsletters, advice columns, new books, and all the other things an aspiring author is supposed to stay on top of? It’s enough to drive you mad. As I mentioned, I’m a pathological overachiever. I wanted an A in this business, which meant staying on top of it, reading the trends, stalking #MSWL like it was my day-job (it’s not). And being informed is good! I’m very grateful for my knowledge of trends and houses and tropes and book stats. The thing that I’m not grateful for is all the noise. The rage-Tweets and nasty fights. The near-constant state of scandal and offense. Without my even realizing it, the hours I spent tracking the news (both in and out of the publishing world) was dumping toxic waste into the well of my creative spirit. I’ve always been a pretty quick writer, but suddenly this summer I could barely get out 500 words. Everything was a struggle and I, already feeling rather bleak, found myself returning to social media like one of those rats that will electrocute their pleasure-centers until they die. Eventually, I wizened up and blocked Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook on my work computer. I did my best to create a salt-circle around my writing time, letting none of those shouting voices in. Slowly but surely, it helped. Now, looking back, I can see that those tiny dopamine-fixes of outrage and validation were the morphine to my perceived failure. It was so much easier to get online and fall into some internet rabbit-hole about something that made me angry or self-righteous than it was to face the brutal task of creating when I felt so low. What I didn’t realize was that this self-fulfilling cycle feeding on my insecurity was making me more insecure. It was fueling the very electrical fire it was meant to put out. So if you’re out there, struggling in the writing trenches, do whatever you need to do to protect that child-like wonder that lets you make fun stuff. Because it’s delicate.
- Don’t expect anyone to hold your hand. You know what shouldn’t be delicate? You. If you’re at all plugged into the publishing world, I’m sure you heard about That Article that ruffled feathers all over the place. I won’t get into the specifics of that piece, but I will say that one of the most damaging hopes/dreams/visions I had about publishing was this idea that I’d find this perfect agent and perfect editor and they’d become my BFF’s and we’d text each other pictures and encouragement and jokes and it would be like Central Perk Cafe in my track changes. Stating the obvious yet again: I was wrong. My agent was/is a lovely, intelligent, talented person. But were we friends? Not really. She was a business partner, meant to provide advice and edits and the service of shopping my manuscript to houses to me and her ~40 other clients. I realized pretty quickly that my dreams of having a partner in crime were way off base. Now, that’s not to say that SOME people don’t find relationships like that. I know many people who text memes to their agents or get non-business drinks with their editors. And that’s great! But again, don’t expect it. It’s healthier (IMO) to go in with your own support system, your own financial plan, and your own confidence. If you’re looking for publishing to give it to you, you’ll end up like I did with your face in some Ben & Jerry’s binge-watching Downton Abbey. And that’s not a good look on anyone.
- There is no permanent magic ticket. When I first started writing, I had a delusion that I think a lot of aspiring authors share. I imagined that there would be a moment where I’d “made it”, some inflection point beyond which I’d be a “real writer”. I think this is a very human yearning that manifests in all kinds of things. We want to “solve” our weight, “fix” our emotional instabilities, “hack” our lives. But the truth in writing (as in life) is that nothing is ever that stable. Even from my own very lowly position in the publishing hierarchy, I’ve learned that even the most famous and successful writers don’t feel like they’ve made it. They still grapple with insecurity and doubt. And, like I said, the wheel is always turning. What’s popular now might be forgotten in 5 years. If you want to make a career out of this (as I still do, for some ungodly reason), it’s a Sisyphean struggle. A never-ending marathon. You have to stay relevant, stay engaged, keep writing, keep moving. Very few authors are made by one book, just like very few homes are cleaned once and stay that way. I know, trust me, how alluring it is to fantasize about a future where your mind is quiet and the writing is easy and money is rolling in and your worries have melted away. But it’s just that, a fantasy. The truth is writing gets harder. If you’re doing it right, then (hopefully) you’re getting better, which means your tastes are getting better, which means it will only get more difficult to impress yourself and be happy with your work. So even if you make a gazillion dollars, you’ll only be glaring at a blank page on a nicer desk (Admittedly I don’t speak from experience here, but I’ve read enough “confessions of a famous person” posts to safely assume). The grind is real and never-ending. But if all of this sounds exhausting, then you’re forgetting the most important part….
- Remember the love. This, for me, has been the hardest thing on this list. By the time my agent broke things off, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d actually enjoyed writing. I was putting so much pressure on myself to improve fast and surprise editors and be different but not too different, because I had to fit in with what the industry wanted and… well, I could go on. The important thing is that the invasive, destructive, self-critical thoughts left no space for the joy of writing. I’d lost the reason for the whole stupid thing! In my heart, all I’ve ever wanted was to write. Publishing, really, is just about gaining the financial freedom to do more writing. And I don’t have that financial freedom (YET, she screams into the void) but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy doing the thing. I haven’t quite healed from the roller-coaster of this year, but I can already feel myself shifting, re-learning how to look at a project with wonder and excitement rather than the cold birds-eye view of marketing. It’s a beautiful, daring, and important thing we storytellers do. I believe in the power of fiction, perhaps more than I believe anything else. Especially now, when our cultural empathy seems to be eroding and our avenues of open communication break down like untended roads, stories matter. And even better, they’re fun! Words are fun and characters are fun and slipping into a different world is FUN. In the messiness of chasing fame and followers and external validation, it’s remarkably easy to lose sight of the why. But, as Stephen King so famously said, “if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
Anyways, I hope this post helped someone. It’s a hard thing we’re all doing here, but I’m in the ring with you, bloody and bruised and getting back up.I’ve got lots of books in me yet and a stubborn, perhaps foolish hope that one day I’ll finally get that yes, even if it’s just from a happy reader.
The only true failure is quitting, after all.
Happy writing, friends!