I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves.
I remember that if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and then you have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard you’ve tried, and you came close with that one agent, and you attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how you keep trying and you…
Yes, it sucks.
So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.
1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing.
It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.
And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.
2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published.
I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too. For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have just the group for you. It’s led by Tamim Ansary, it meets for free every Tuesday night, and there’s incredible camaraderie and support. Tamim’s an incredible mentor and generous critiquer (generous in terms of the thoughtfulness involved in his responses, not that he necessarily praises) and your writing will improve if you listen to him.
The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully.
3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously.
4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to target.
Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling. See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target.
You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet, www.agentquery.com), but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?
Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.
Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.
. . . . .