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October 23, 2012
Writing students, those I critique, and people in my writing workshops will sometimes question whether it is ethical to encourage fledgling writers.
Because the path to publication isn’t easy, and they will experience a lot of rejection along the way, and the “odds” are stacked against them. That’s all true.
So why encourage new writers to persevere?
I do it because they all honestly have a chance. Of course, some students turn out to be sprinters only. They write a bit, give it their all, get tired, and quit. Some, though, turn out to be marathon runners, in it for the long haul. They experience the pain of rejection and the exhaustion of the uphill climb as well–but they don’t quit. That is often the deciding factor.
Separating the Men from the Boys
Can writing teachers and workshop leaders predict who will eventually cross the finish line? I used to think so, but experience has taught me otherwise.
I am saddened by the talented writers who quit easily. I am even more often encouraged by the medium-talented writers who hang in there and get published. And even though students ask, I can’t predict, based on someone’s early writing, if they have that necessary stick-to-it-iveness to succeed in the writing life. Mostly it’s a character issue–not a talent issue.
As Ralph Keys says in The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication, I try to encourage all new writers, but that is not the same as praising mediocre work.
Those of you who have been my students or have paid for a critique know that I critique thoroughly. But you can give tough critiques–showing ways to improve the work–without being discouraging. You give “honest reassurance,” says John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist.
The Biggest Writer Hurdle
The major difference I see between those who quit and those who are persistent is their “acceptance of rejection.” That may sound like a contradiction of terms, but it’s critical to your survival as a writer.
Accept the fact that you’ll get rejected. Often. All during your writing career. I’ve sold 42 books at this point, but I still get rejections. Rejected proposals, rejected books, rejections from people I’ve sold to before. It happens to all published writers. It’s part of the writing life AND IT’S NOT PERSONAL.
In Unstoppable Women: Achieve Any Breakthrough Goal in 30 Days, Cynthia Kersey talks about this rejection. (And it doesn’t just happen to writers.) She says, “Rejection comes with the territory when we’re selling anything, whether it’s a project, a product, an idea, or ourselves. Everyone isn’t going to ‘get it’ or be interested in what we’re offering. So what! When we accept that ‘no’ is a natural part of the process, we can easily move past each rejection until someone does say yes.”
Marathoner or sprinter–which one are you? Do your writing habits support your choice? If not, what changes do you need to make in your training in order to carry your writing over the finish line?
Make a list–and make one tiny change today.
August 28, 2012
Recent events–the economic recession plus all the changes in publishing–have left many writers in a quandary. Is being a writer still a viable option to earn a living?
To quell the rising panic, it helps me to remember that things have always gone in cycles. This isn’t the first time of upheaval, and it’s likely that it won’t be the last.
In my thirty years of being published, I’ve had two very dry periods. One five-year period when I sold nothing happened in the 90s. Another three-year dry period of nothingness happened with the last five years.
It might help you to know what I did during those times to stay financially afloat and keep on writing.
A Previous Recession
When my book career began in the 80′s, I had five or six relatively easy years with my editor Gail at Atheneum. We did eleven hardcovers together before Gail lost her job in a corporate take-over and downsizing. The publishing industry then was a lot like it is today.
At that time, I got two manuscripts back. Within six months, all my books went out of print–so there was almost no royalty income then. My last two books in a Christian series were not published either. (I found out much later that this happened to a lot of writers.)
This horror was followed by five years of no new books, sending out proposals, rewriting proposals, writing queries, and spending a ton on postage and photocopying costs when I was making zilch on my book writing. (There was no online writing then, no email submissions, etc.)
Getting Out of the Slump
Then in a bookstore I found a book called Making It On Your Own: Surviving and Thriving on the Ups and Downs of Being Your Own Boss by Paul and Sarah Edwards. In the marketing section, a statement leaped off the page. This one piece of advice jump-started my disappearing career. “You need to experiment until you discover what particular combination of your skills and abilities at what price will be valuable to what group of people within the current economic realities.”
It said to experiment, so I tried different things to see what might work. The following year I wrote a story for an anthology, entered several contests, did some short manuscripts for children’s magazines, wrote some writers’ articles. I created a new workshop on revision and did eighteen months’ of school visits with it.
Time to Evaluate
The next step recommended by the book was to use the 80/20 Principle on your experiments. So I sat down with paper and pencil and analyzed: “What 20% of my work has generated 80% of my income?” In other words, what strategies had worked for me? Where should I be putting the bulk of my energy to survive this financial writing slump?
Well, I had bombed on contests and all fifteen short stories; I did sell the story to the anthology; my fastest response and most money, though, came from writing articles for magazines and doing the revision workshop. More than 80% of my income was coming from that 20% of my work. So (while I contintued to write my middle-grade fiction novels) I concentrated on those two things to pay the bills.
Surviving the Tough Times
During that time, some nonfiction articles became a series for Children’s Writer, which turned into ideas for “Support Room” articles when I became the Institute‘s first web editor. A few years later, those ideas sparked my book, Writer’s First Aid, as well as several articles for the SCBWI Bulletin.
The slump eventually ended, as it will again for writers struggling in the current recession. After five years of selling no books, I sold four of my middle-grade novels in one year. If I had quit writing my fiction during that recession, I would have had nothing to sell when publishers started buying again.
So during the slump five years ago, I did the same thing: found ways to stay afloat to pay some bills (mostly educational writing), but also kept writing middle-grade fiction and studying and learning. Last year I finally sold two of the books, one of them being More Writer’s First Aid.
Writing slumps will come and go in cycles. Don’t stop writing in the dry periods. Instead remember that old adage: This too shall pass.
June 29, 2011
The last two weeks we’ve talked about the stages of success. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one quality that is a “must have”: perseverance.
According to the dictionary, “perseverance” is steady persistence in a course of action, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
This year I worked with a young writer who embodies this quality and has inspired me not to quit when things get difficult.
It started last year when he wrote and asked me to critique his first YA novel of about 60,000 words, the first in a trilogy. I had an opening and told him to send it. He asked if I could print it off on my printer as he was a soldier deployed in Iraq and without a printer. He’d written the book there. (It was a very good and suspenseful story.)
Last month I heard from him again. The second book in the trilogy was finished. Could I look at it? And yes, he was deployed again and was sending the manuscript from Iraq.
I thought about the whining I had done over the years about being tired, the excuses I gave for being too busy to write every day, and the lack of support of a weekly writers’ group. And then…there’s a young soldier with a wife and two little ones back home who is deployed in a war zone–who grabs his spare minutes and writes two lengthy novels! I know he gets little sleep, I know he’s busy, and I’ll bet my bottom dollar he doesn’t have a weekly writing group!
But he writes.
Today I considered skipping my writing stint because my back is really hurting. Then I thought about the obstacles Kevin overcomes to write–and I sat down to write anyway. Time to develop some of his uncommon perseverance. (Enjoy today’s art, also courtesy of this young soldier. Love that frog!)
NOTE: For those of you in the San Antonio, TX, area, I wanted to give a little plug for our fall conference: Southwest Texas SCBWI Fall Conference It’s Saturday, September 17, 2011 from 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM (CT)
The SCBWI event is featuring:
- Andrea Welch – Editor, Beach Lane Press (Simon & Schuster)
- Elena Mechlin- Agent, Pippin Agency (HarperCollins)
- Kristin Daly Rens – Editor, Balzer and Bray
- Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand
- Kim Murray, Online Media Specialist with Piccolo Media
- Richard Johnson, InteractBooks
Check it out!
April 15, 2011
Excitement gets us started on a novel. Enthusiasm rekindles (usually) near the finish as momentum picks up and we see the end in sight.
But what about the miserable middle? What about that time where you feel like you’re on a treadmill that’s not moving any closer to the finish line?
[Point of clarity: I don't mean when you write the middle chapters of a novel. I'm talking about getting through the middle months (or years) of writing a novel. The beginning part is where you write your rough draft. The ending is where you polish and proofread and submit it.]
The middle is everything else–and it’s a lot of work!
Characteristics of the Middle
The middle is where the rubber meets the road, in my opinion. Pretty much everyone can write a rough draft of a novel. If you join NaNoWriMo, you can accomplish that rough draft in a month or less. Likewise, pretty much everyone can proofread and tweak a nearly finished novel. It’s nitpicky (and a bit boring sometimes), but not that hard.
But the middle months? This is where your craft (or lack thereof) shows. The middle months of revising can be depressing as you read your rough draft. Mine always stink–and every time they stink far worse than I am expecting. I’m not sure why I’m still surprised, except maybe I dreamed that one day my rough drafts wouldn’t be so…well…rough.
What Have I Done?
The middle can also be depressing–or maybe overwhelming is a better word–because you can’t see the end. You may have started the novel with a clear idea of where it was going to go, but either (1) it took off in another direction that you now question, or (2) it followed your outline and now you don’t like how it turned out. You’ve lost the thrill of writing a rough draft or just the thrill of the original idea. Now it looks like one big mess.
Many writers quit during the middle months. It’s a time when you learn what you don’t know. (“I can’t write dialogue that sounds like real people!” “I can’t figure out what’s wrong with this opening or where to put the backstory!” “I don’t know how much research to do for my historical novel.”) When the amount of work that is needed looks overwhelming, many writers scrap that project and begin (with excitement) something new.
Is there anything wrong with that? Not really–as long as you realize that this new project will also have a middle to get through. And if you don’t get through middles, you’ll never get to the end–and be published.
On vacation I was able to finish reading The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright. Here was one of her suggestions for the difficult middle:
“Creative work is multifaceted enough that it’s possible to find rest within it by shifting tasks. Maybe I can’t face the really right-brained creative work today, so this is a perfect time to go back to another section and do some rigorous editing. Switching back and forth between various tasks is perfectly fine for that long middle phase.”
I found this to be great advice on our trip.
Put It Into Practice
I took along my novel to work on if there was time, and thanks to the flight delays, there was. We had to sit in airports for hours–which I don’t mind at all now that I don’t travel with small children. When it was noisy or I was distracted, I worked on a bit of the setting, adding details from my research and from some new brochures I picked up.
When I had a couple of uninterrupted hours (e.g. husband returning the rental car), I had the quiet room to myself and buckled down to do some more intensive “internal work” on the heroine. Since I have a single-spaced six-page list of revision changes to make, I have plenty of big and little jobs to choose from. There’s always something that looks doable and appealing.
The long middles used to feel overwhelming to me. Occasionally they still do when a novel is giving me fits. For the most part, though, I enjoy the variety of the middle. You get to deepen characters, paint detailed settings, etc. which is much more fun to me than checking for misplaced commas.
How do you feel about the middle of projects? And has it changed over the years?
January 26, 2011
Typically, my writing students are excited two times: at the very beginning of the writing course and again at the end (because they are graduating and/or being published.)
Book writers are also excited at the beginning of a project (when their idea and characters are new) and at the end (when the final draft is complete or it’s sold.)
But the middle? Middles can be miserable.
Part of the Package
Last year I had two writers in the same week, both talented and one already published, write to me to say that they were no longer excited about writing because it had become difficult. “This is harder than I thought it would be” is something I frequently hear. The new writer usually wants me to explain how to make it easy again, how to take the work out of the writing.
I think this comes from a real misconception about writing. Writing is like having a good relationship with someone. It’s exciting when you first meet, it’s satisfying after years of sharing experiences and working through the conflicts, but the middle is a mixture of joy and tests (or obstacles.) Frequently it’s not fun! It’s just part of the package–and it’s the same with writing.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
A quote from Never Give Up! says it well:
“Between the beginning and the end, every situation or pursuit has a ‘middle’–and the middle is where we often face our greatest challenges, hurdles, roadblocks, obstacles, detours, and tests. People who are easily led by their emotions rarely finish what they start. They give up when the project is no longer exciting and all they see in front of them is hard work.”
Just a While Longer
If you’re on the verge of quitting writing, I would encourage you to give it a bit longer. Face the challenges and be determined to overcome them. Find ways to make the middles fun! They can be every bit as rewarding as beginnings and endings–it just takes more work. Don’t be satisfied with “just trying” something, but see it through to the end. At least 90% of the time, you’ll be so glad you did.
I know there are rare instances where the only wise thing to do is to give up (on a career choice, a relationship, or a story). That choice is the exception to the rule though. Don’t be quick to quit writing just because it stops being fun for a while.
Best Predictor of Success
Many new writers will ask me, “Do you think I have what it takes to succeed as a writer?” I used to believe that I could tell within a couple of lessons with students. I have found over the years that I was wrong. Too often the students I had earmarked for long and happy writing careers quit because it grew difficult, and they were used to instant and easy success.
On the other hand, students who were mediocre at the beginning have gone on to publish well! I have a shelf of student books to prove it. They studied, they learned, they took courses and got critiqued if necessary. They submitted and endured rejection slips–but they persevered. And I’m proud to say that their books are impacting the world of children in very positive ways.
ALL writers have trouble sticking it out during those “miserable middles.” Do you have any mental tricks or words of wisdom that work for you at such times? If so, please share!
December 1, 2010
Even if you didn’t participate in this year’s November National Novel Writing Month, you can still have access to their NaNoWriMo pep talks that were sent throughout November to participants. Many of them are excellent!
Here’s what it says on their website: “We recruited an all-star team of authors to share their advice and thoughts on writing. Their pep talks will be emailed to participants throughout November. We hope their insight and encouragement help you on your way!”
Here you’ll find pep talks from some of the finest and best-selling writers of our time. Some are serious nuts-and-bolts advice talks while others are tongue-in-cheek funny. Either way, they’re an encouragement to those of us who are challenged on a regular basis with our writing.
Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:
From Chris Baty: “Incite change. If your story is losing momentum, juice it up by inflicting some major changes on your characters. Crash the spaceship. End the marriage. Buy the monkey. Change is scary because we have to figure out what comes next. But feeling afraid is ten times better than feeling bored, and your book will benefit from your risk-taking. Go big this week! You won’t regret it.”
From Aimee Bender: “What we hold in our heads before we write is RARELY in sync with what shows up on the page, and if I were standing and saying this in front of you with a megaphone, I would say this next part especially loud and clear: The Page is All We Get. What shows up on the page? Well, that is your writing. The full-blown perfectly-whole concept you may have in your head? Is just thought.”
From Holly Black: “Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was writing my first book. I want to say them to you in the hopes they will help and encourage you. Even if you’ve heard them before, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.” And then she follows this with seven tips that are right on the money.
From Lindsey Grant: “You’ve been carrying around a story for a while now and you finally started writing it. Getting started is hard enough, but then you went on to write for a full week, bringing your story to life and making your noveling dream a reality. You’re well on your way, writer, and you have come so far already! Don’t let your inner editor convince you that this isn’t worth your time, or that you should start over, or-even worse-that you should start over some other time. For this novel there is no “later.” There is only now.”
From John Green: “All of us harbor secret hopes that a magnificent novel will tumble out of the sky and appear on our screens, but almost universally, writing is hard, slow, and totally unglamorous.”
From Mercedes Lackey: “I can’t think of anything more intimidating than a blank page. Especially the first blank page of a new project. Now, after twenty-mumble years of writing, I have a lot of things to get me past that…”
From Lemony Snicket: “Struggling with your novel? Paralyzed by the fear that it’s nowhere near good enough? Feeling caught in a trap of your own devising? You should probably give up.” Very funny letter follows!
So if you’re feeling sluggish and need some writing pep, check out these terrific pep talks. It just may be the jumpstart you need!
August 2, 2010
You meet an editor or agent in an elevator or the banquet line. They turn to you and ask, “What’s your book about? Why are you the person to write it?”
Which One Is You?
Do you give a confident 30-second talk summarizing your book’s main points and why you’re the only one who could do the project justice?
Do you say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m a lousy writer! Who do I think I am anyway, masquerading as a writer? It’s a dumb book idea.”
Of course you don’t spout that second example!
And yet, many writers do that very thing to themselves every day. That evil little voice in your head or over your shoulder whispers, “That’s a stupid idea” or “That’s been done before–and a lot better” or “You’re never going to finish that story.” And like agreeable little twits, we nod and tell ourselves, “This is a dumb idea. I’m never going to finish this. This concept was done last year–and a whole lot better!”
Then, discouraged for another day, we head for the ice cream.
Pitch It to Yourself!
The name “elevator pitch” means a short speech you have ready for that opportune moment when you can market yourself or your book idea to someone that might buy it. Every day–even many times a day–you need to pitch your writing project and yourself TO YOURSELF.
How are you going to sell your story idea to yourself? What elevator pitch can you give to yourself when you’re surprised, not by an agent or editor in the elevator, but by your own nagging questions?
- When “voice in the head” says, “This is just too hard!”
- You say, “I have done many hard things in my life. I can do one more difficult thing.”
- When “voice in the head” says, “There’s too much going on in your life for you to write now”
- You say, “Writing is at the top of my To-Do list because it’s important!”
- When “voice in the head” says, “Editors and agents scare me!”
- You say, “Even when I feel anxious, I can act like a professional.”
- When “voice in the head” says, “I can’t write because I can’t tolerate rejections”
- You say, “NOT writing is the only rejection that matters. It’s a rejection of my dreams. I can write a little each day.”
Write Your Own Now
Take a few moments today and write at least three elevator pitches of your own, counter-acting the voice in your head. Write the pitches on cards and tape them to your computer. When the “voice” badgers you the next time, read one of your cards OUT LOUD. Several times.
And if you’re feeling very brave, add an elevator pitch in the comments section (up to three pitches) that you can begin pitching to yourself today!
July 19, 2010
In 1953 a fledgling business called Rocket Chemical Company set out to create a rust-prevention solvent for use in the aerospace industry. It took them 40 attempts to get the formula right.
Voila! WD-40, which stands for Water Displacement, 40th attempt.
I find that inspiring! What if they’d given up on number 39? Then I wouldn’t have my favorite solution for unsticking locks and making my sliding glass doors actually slide.
WD-40 Your Manuscripts
No, don’t spray the greasy mist on your manuscript. But do take the WD-40 as your slogan. Don’t stop submitting until you also have tried many, many times!
In order to spur myself on to submit several book manuscripts that I had “retired” after just two rejections, yesterday I was reading in Ralph Keyes’ The Writer’s Book of Hope. I was encouraged by some very famous “WD-40″ kinds of authors who would have remained nameless if they’d given up so early.
- Despite being represented by a top literary agent and being read by prominent editors, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace was rejected by every major American publisher who saw it. (It was published in London.)
- Other famous books that went through multiple rejects include: Look Homeward, Angel; Love Story; A Wrinkle in Time; All Things Bright and Beautiful and many other novels that became classics and continue to sell decades later.
- Twenty major publishers thought Chicken Soup for the Soul had no commercial prospects, despite the authors being experienced speakers and aggressive marketers.
- Stephen King’s first four novels and sixty short stories were rejected.
Having your work turned down is no fun, and I won’t sing the praises of being rejected. I hate it too. But we must come to terms with it, accept it as part of the writing life, accept criticism if it has merit, and get on with it.
A Necessary Part
And now…in the spirit of the inventers of WD-40, I’m off to submit my manuscripts another 38 times.
[I'm curious about you. 'Fess up. How many rejections do you get on a manuscript before you give up on it?]