I realized a long time ago that I’m a pretty serious pessimist. While most see this trait as a negative one, I like to think it stems from an innate desire to be prepared. When the ground falls out underneath me, I can take it more in stride because, hey, I suspected it was coming.
But with writing, even I’ll admit that it’s not a characteristic that helps. When you’re not published and trying to balance work and family and friends and desperately trying to sneak time in to work on a manuscript, the one thing you need to cling to is hope. Hope you’re not just spinning your wheels and wasting your time on .doc files that no one will ever see or care about. Because we’ve all hit those ruts where it doesn’t matter how long you stare at the screen, your fingers are never going to hit the keys in the magic sequence necessary to create something great. Those are the moments when it feels like the world is just unfair and it’s NEVER going to happen.
But then it does.
I found out about a month ago that this October, I will officially become a published author. After writing to the folks at SCBWI to say thanks for all their support over the years, they were nice enough to let me write a blog piece about my journey to publication. It took me a while to really figure out what that involved since my pessimistic brain remembers the failures better than the triumphs and no one wants to read about those. But then that’s what the writing experience was for me: an endurance run. My engine always felt like it was breaking down, but I was lucky enough to find just enough “fuel,” so to speak, to keep me in the race.
So I thought I would share with you some of these tips that I’ve picked up over the years. My hope is that these may inspire someone else to push on a bit longer!
Good writing doesn’t, and shouldn’t, happen every day.
I try to read as many writers’ blogs as I can, and advice I see given a lot is to try and get into the “habit” of writing. Write every day, EVERY DAY, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It seems like a no-brainer, and what I wish more people would mention is the value in this because, most of the time, what you write is…not very good. It would be swell if every time you sat down to write, sunshine and roses exploded from your fingertips, but that isn’t usually the case for most writers. And that’s fine, as long as you keep coming back to it, time and time again. There can’t be any good without the bad.
I have a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald on a Post-it near my desk that reads “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath,” which I think puts it nicely. Good writing will find its way to you, as long as you keep taking the dive.
Take a moment to relish the little victories
For most people, the road to publication is a long one. From the day I decided I wanted to be an author and put the first word down on the page to the day I learned I was going to be published, roughly eight years passed. Between then, I completed four manuscripts and dozens of drafts, spent thousands of dollars on conferences and critiques, and wrote close to a hundred query letters. The process has been long and arduous, but even I can see that I should still be super grateful as it has taken others even longer to achieve their dream of publication.
Sadly, what sticks out to me over the years are the stumbles and not the triumphs. I remember how it felt to receive a rejected query letter much more vividly than getting asked to submit a manuscript after a successful pitch. I spent zero time celebrating getting to the Top 50 out of the 5,000 people who submitted to Amazon’s 2011 Breakthrough Novel Award and was more preoccupied in dwelling in frustration after getting a manuscript ripped to shreds at a critique. I didn’t think twice about getting praise for my ideas in a workshop from a published author and focused more on wondering, nay, obsessing over someone who had, quite frankly, a more interesting manuscript than mine.
I was stuck in a spiral of negativity and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t pushing myself to get better, but just pushing myself down and making it harder to keep going. I could have saved myself a lot of time and aggravation if I just could have realized that, hey, I’m not doing so bad. Take a moment to enjoy the small wins as they come along, and then do what you can to push forward.
This bit of wisdom I developed partly from Donna Gephart, another great author whom I had the privilege of hearing at a SCBWI conference. She is an extremely humble person and was very open about her struggles as a writer, some of which made me feel silly for getting so down on myself. She made a lot of memorable points, but the one that stuck with me the most was this: Sometimes, you’re on the one-yard line, and you don’t even know it.
I keep this idea in the back of my mind all the time when writing, and it’s extremely useful when I’m stuck or feeling particularly down on my work. Maybe, just maybe, the next query letter is going to change everything. Maybe tomorrow is the day the pieces of my jumbled manuscript are finally going to start syncing together. Maybe my next manuscript is the one that’s going to land me the publishing contract that will allow me to finally write as a career.
Most likely not. But I don’t know that for sure. So I trick myself and when it works, even for a second, I can keep the engine going.
Be the Last Person Standing
I mentioned earlier that for me, the road to publication felt like an endurance run, a viewpoint I developed from the legendary Laurie Halse Anderson when she gave the keynote at a Spring SCBWI conference. I had actually met Laurie years before, as her daughter and my wife roomed together for a short time in Brooklyn. Back then I’d only briefly mentioned my writing ambitions because, let’s be honest, that’s like telling Monet you’re starting to dabble in this watercolor thing. Nonetheless, with a little more experience under my belt, I approached her at that conference and we small-talked. She asked how my writing was going and I opened up about my reservations, my frustration over working so hard and gaining so little success. She understood and gave me some words of encouragement, explaining that a lot of people have the talent to be published, but they don’t have the stomach for the rejection it sometimes takes to get there. So all I needed to do was not give up. Plain and simple.
What an empowering idea. It helped me see that I wasn’t competing against other writers for precious spots in publishing houses’ line-ups, needing to be better than all of them. The only one I was competing against was myself. And my self-doubt. And if I could outlast that, I could make it. This might be another method of “tricking myself,” but it worked. I fought through the doubt and lasted long enough.
Timing is (Mostly) Everything
For those of you who’ve racked up mountains of rejection letters like I have, you’ve come to recognize one particular phrase, no doubt: a reminder that the publishing industry is a “highly subjective” one. That what one editor is not interested in, another might adore. True, I always thought, but there must be a tipping point. Some level of quality I could reach that no editor would be able to deny. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that quality is of course important, but timing also plays a huge role in determining what happens to your manuscript. We’ve all heard the stories from the greats. How J.K. Rowling was rejected by twelve publishing houses, William Golding racked up a solid twenty rejections before finding someone for “Lord of the Flies,” etc. The list goes on and on. And it’s good to remind yourself of this because it’s true! Sometimes it’s not just the quality of the work, but whether it can find its way into the right hands at the right time.
My road to publication took a similar turn. I submitted my debut novel to about a dozen agents, noting the rejections as they came in a spreadsheet to keep track of everything. The breakthrough finally happened thanks to a critique I signed up for at one of SCBWI’s critique fests, where I was randomly assigned to an agent who saw the potential in my manuscript and eventually offered me representation. After the initial waves of bliss wore off, I couldn’t help but feel like the name of the agency seemed familiar. Sure enough, when I checked my rejection spreadsheet, it turns out that I’d submitted that very manuscript a few months prior to that agency. And was rejected.
Timing can be everything.
Getting Published Doesn’t Make It Easier
I would love to say that now that I’ve gotten to where so many writers want to be, it’s all easy street. In reality, I’m slowly learning that the hard part has just begun. Now, not only am I worried about writing great manuscripts, I’m fretting over building a social media platform, networking, arranging publicity events with my publicist, etc. I struggle with finding things to tweet and how to talk about and share my book with others without seeming like I’m stuck up or bragging. I worry that my writing has peaked with this published manuscript. What if I’m always chasing this high? But maybe not.
Maybe it’s just the pessimist in me, and the best is yet to come.
Mark’s debut novel, Surfacing, is due out this October 20th from Jolly Fish Press. You can follow him on Twitter @MagroCrag.