Writers: Some Advice on When You Should Give Up

I was reading an article Monday about a couple that both wrote novels and decided to self-publish. Good for them, I thought. It seemed from the beginning of the article that they were just looking for an outlet for their creativity. But then I came across this quote about why they decided to self-publish instead of look for a traditional publishing contract:

“It was disappointing,” she said. “How long do you decide to torture yourself with getting rejected by every publisher in the business before you decide to say you know what, my story’s good enough that it doesn’t really need the approval of a bunch of business people?”

But how many agents and publishers had they queried? Ten each. Ten.

Ten is “every publisher in the business?” No. No it is not. Despite the Big Five, there are still hundreds of publishers and there are thousands of agents.

The couple says that the reason they didn’t have the patience to wait out more rejection in hopes of finding someone who would champion their book is because of their age. Are both in their 80s? Nope! Both are in their 40s.

That’s fine. I may disagree that their age precludes patience (and I’m starting the home stretch toward 40 myself) but of course anyone who wants to can go it alone, and it’s a great choice for a lot of people. I’m self-pubbing short stories every month, so who am I to criticize? And their genres (sci-fi and fantasy) tend to do better in ebooks than many others. But here’s the hard reality: between the two of them, they’ve sold about fifty copies.

This is what traditional publishers (those “bunch of business people”) can generally guarantee: you will sell more than a few dozen copies. You may not be the next bestseller, but you will sell more because your book will be more visible. It will be in physical bookstores, which, yes, people still shop in. It will be sent out for reviews (these authors had to pay Kirkus to review their books). It will get professional editing and proofreading (I haven’t read either book, but a “look inside” one of them on Amazon reveals fourteen en-dashes that should be em-dashes [or commas or sentence breaks] and a distracting slew of ellipses on just the first couple pages).

Those “business people” aren’t sitting in a huge conference room somewhere, gleefully rubbing their hands together and sending out rejections because they don’t “approve” of a story. They love books. They love helping authors improve their books. They love seeing books get into the hands of eager readers. They love their authors (despite what some online rants from bitter authors would have us think) because their authors are the ones who make the whole business possible. Without stories, there’s no business.

I’m glad that these two are putting their books out there. I hope they sell a ton of them and it sounds like both are working on their next novels. They are doing it as a creative outlet. Maybe they don’t care about sales or paychecks from it since it is not their primary employment. And that’s just fine.

But I don’t want anyone to read their rationale, that ten “business people” didn’t respond positively, and think that if you didn’t get a contract after ten queries that there’s no point in querying more. Or that the people who work in the publishing business are heartless or just out to make a buck.

Everyone–everyone–I know in the business (hundreds and hundreds of people) are in the business because they love to read, love to write, and think a good book is its own reward. They simply love good storytelling and they want every book to reach as many readers as possible because they want an author to be read.

Maybe at the tip-top of the Big Five there are some full-on “business people” who are only in it for a fat paycheck. There are the Rupert Murdochs of the world, naturally. But for every one of them, there are thousands of agents, editors, marketers, publicists, and production people who are in it for the love of a good story. They are not a gauntlet of stick-wielding sadists who are looking to pummel an author with rejection. They are an army of supporters who want an author to bring his or her very best to the world.

Thing is, you don’t generally get published by asking just ten people to look at your work. It does take time and tenacity. So many great stories go unread simply because their authors gave up too quickly when faced with the fact that they might not be the next big thing right out of the gate.

Full disclosure here: For my first novel, I have queried 117 agents. Agents I’ve researched. Agents who I know rep my sort of story. Agents who have said they are looking for new clients. Today, one of those agents (number 113) is presenting my proposal to her partners. Together they will come to consensus on whether or not to take me on as a client. If it happens, I’ll be very happy that that particular leg of the journey toward publication is complete. But I’ll also know that it’s not over because then my agent will have to convince a publisher to take on my novel.

If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be disappointed. But then I will start researching more agents who might be a good fit for me and my writing. Or perhaps I’ll self-publish (after getting a professional edit on my own dime) and move on to the next novel, which might strike a chord with an agent where the last one didn’t. Who knows.

The point is, I believe in the publishing industry and I still see value in it. Maybe it’s because I have an inside track on it (I work for a traditional publisher). I love a lot of aspects of self-publishing and it is the right route for certain people and certain projects. But it’s not right if you’re just doing it because you’re impatient. Rejection isn’t just part of the game, it’s an essential part. Because it should make you a better writer.

Had I self-pubbed after I got my first ten “no thanks” responses to my query I would have published a book that wasn’t ready, that was inferior to the book it is now in more than one way. If these two authors had queried agents who rep their genre and were looking for new clients, the rejections they received should have been the first clue that there was something in their writing that needed improvement.

From my 117 queries, I received 11 very helpful rejections and one specific request for revision and resubmission. That’s 10% who read at least a portion of the manuscript and had a lot of positive things to say about it, yet had reservations for a variety of reasons. One of those rejections was a hard one to take because it had a lot of criticism in it. But even that one, when I had let it settle in, contained helpful revision advice.

My manuscript is far stronger now than it was when I sent my first query to an agent in early April of 2012. Yep, that’s nearly a year and a half ago.

So what’s my advice on when you should give up on your dreams? Never. Even some of the greats were told at various times by various people that they lacked talent, their stories were uninteresting or unmarketable, and that they should pursue another line of work. Keep working, keep improving, keep trying.

And for goodness sake, have the humility the learn something from those “business people” in publishing.

Oh, and you don’t have to take my word on all this. Turns out agent Rachelle Gardner was thinking about some of the same things this week!

Giddiness, Goals, and Giveaways

Hi friends. I don’t typically focus on stats and numbers in this space (yawn) but I noticed this week that A Beautiful Fiction reached 900 followers. This made me understandably perky. And then I thought, What if I could reach 1000 by the end of the year? Wouldn’t that be cool? And I answered myself, Yes, Erin, that would indeed be cool.

So beyond my goals to write and publish a short story each month (which is going just swimmingly, I can assure you) and to secure literary representation for my first novel (which may or may not happen in the coming month, but it’s a possibility), I’ve added a third goal for the year: to reach 1000 followers on the blog. Hey, it could happen. And if it does, I’m prepared to go a little nuts.

So, if by 11:59 PM on December 31, 2013 I’ve gotten to 1000 followers, all twelve short stories I will have written this year will be available as a free download on January 2, 2014 (my 34th birthday) as a thank you to all of you.

How can you help make this great giveaway happen?

1.) One easy way is to click the Follow button on the righthand side of the screen if you are not already an official follower of this blog. You’ll get new posts emailed to you automatically–and nothing else. No spam. No ads. Just blog posts. That’s it. When I blog you’ll know about it and you’ll be among the first to know about future giveaways and promos!

2.) When you read a blog post that speaks to you, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter or email it to someone you think would enjoy and benefit from what I write about here.

I may occasionally remind everyone of this opportunity (for newcomers who don’t go back to read this post) but I promise not to be obnoxious about it.

If the blog reaches 1000 followers earlier than the last night of the year, the giveaway will happen earlier as well. So if you’ve been enjoying this space as much as I have, please share it with your friends–and then get 12 short stories totally free on your Kindle.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

The Past, the Future, and This Unending Winter

March 16, 2013, Fenner Nature CenterMichigan, like quite a large swath of the country, is in the midst of a depressing cold snap the likes of which puts me in mind of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. We haven’t started twisting straw into kindling or burning our furniture yet, but one can’t help but feel that everyone is teetering on the edge of that kind of desperation lately.

Last year the temperatures in mid-March were a full 50 degrees higher then they have been during the past week. This was not necessarily good, as it caused massive fruit crop failures when temps dipped below freezing again (for example, Michigan normally produces about 96 million tons of apples a year while in 2012 we only managed 2 million tons). But still, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that it would be nice to have temps in the 40s rather than the 20s at this point in the year.

Being stuck in this winter is like being stuck in a story. You get to a certain point where you feel frozen. You can’t push forward. You can’t go back. You’re just…there. Waiting for the thaw in your brain so you can get on with it already.

That’s how I feel right now. Frozen in time. Tired of what has come before. Waiting to see where things will go in the future. Ready to move on. But stuck frozen in place.

How do you hasten spring? How do you thaw the fertile soil of your creative mind? It seems clear to me that we cannot rush the changing of the seasons, as much as we might want to. There are plenty of tips and tricks to get beyond blocks, but sometimes maybe we just have to wait it out, trusting that the thaw will come, the waters will flow, the flowers will bloom, and the story will move on to the next chapter.

An Ambitious Writing Plan for 2013

Edison's LightbulbIt seems to me that there is quite a push to get writers to believe they can write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo, blog posts, books. If you’re a full time writer or someone with an already thoroughly sketched out or outlined idea, I think that is true. Or maybe if you just type ultra fast. But I don’t think I’m among your ranks.

I have my own fairly ambitious writing plan for this year, however. In May or June I plan to release a novel. But that’s not the real ambitious part (because it’s already written). By the end of 2013 I would like to have a collection of short stories to put into book form. And I would like to release them throughout the year as Kindle Singles, little ebooks for $0.99 each. And I would like to do this once a month.

To think I can pull this off strikes me as ambitious, but not quite foolhardy. So I plan to break up each month of 2013 in such a way that I can write, revise, edit, format, and release a short story into the cybersphere regularly, like the slow drip of an IV.

How will I accomplish this? I believe it may work out this way:

  • Weeks 1 & 2 – Write
  • Week 3 – Revise and edit
  • Week 4 – Format and release

This seems reasonable to me at the moment, in the glow of a fresh new year. We shall see as we go, I suppose, if it is in reality. I already have ten stories partially imagined or scribbled about in my notebook. One of the stories that will be in the collection is already written, though I cannot release that one until after a particular contest is finished in March. So I will save the release of that one to be my one cheat, my back-up in case of a bad or very busy month.

Does this strike you as a little naïve? Am I fooling myself here? Perhaps. But you can’t fail or succeed until you try.

What are your writing goals for 2013? I’d love to hear about them.

Bill Bryson, My First 5k, and a Reckless Betrayal of My Childhood Sanctuary

It seems like all of us have a favorite musician or author, someone whose every work lines our shelves, bought simply because it was produced by an artist we admire. For instance, my husband automatically buys every MXPX album. For my own part, I collect the works of a few people: the Indigo Girls, Garrison Keillor’s collections of the News from Lake Wobegon, and the works of Bill Bryson.

Ah, Bill Bryson. Synthesizer of history, relater of amusing anecdotes, shameless lover of the adverb “arrestingly.” The first work of Bill Bryson’s that I came across and immediately had to have was A Walk in the Woods, his fascinating and humorous book on the venerable Appalachian Trail. I’m a fan of travel writing as I rarely travel and certainly have not done any of the sort of world travel I envisioned myself doing when I was a kid. I’m a huge fan and student of the natural world and I love history. Combine all of these interests and you have the ideal reader for A Walk in the Woods. While I’ve enjoyed and even relished reading his other books, it’s this first one I read that I keep coming back to.

Now, you may recall my summer hike at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with my sister, Alison. If not, you can read about it it here, here, here, and here. I’m already looking forward to and brainstorming our next hike. We can’t take off weeks and months at a time, leaving work and family behind, to hike through whole states, but the impulse to get outside and just start walking down a beguiling trail that disappears into the woods is one I feel often. So imagine my glee at finding a used-yet-never-opened audio version of A Walk in the Woods read by Bill Bryson himself. Now as I drive I am accompanied by Bryson, the incomparable Stephen Katz, the insufferable Mary Ellen, and a host of other wonderful people walking the AT.

These were my companions as I drove to my hometown of Essexville on Friday in preparation for my very first 5k race on Saturday. I’d been training since late July (ever since my muscles stopped screaming at me after my hiking trip, in fact), though I slacked off a bit in October (for some strange reason I can only be diligent at something–anything–in two-month intervals). But as I drove toward the “thumb-pit” of the Mitten and listened to Bill Bryson talk of mountains, I had a renewed sense of the value of real physical exertion, of sweating and struggling to accomplish a goal with one’s body.

When I started running in July, my goal was simply to be able to run for five kilometers without having to stop. That’s it. And I was so far from that goal, I thought I would be very lucky to reach it. In fact, it only took a month of running three times a week to reach that goal. In the process I lost more than ten pounds (I was also watching what I was eating) which, according to knowledgeable people, is the equivalent of losing 30-40 pounds of pressure off your joints whilst running. So the process of training has been very beneficial and I was just happy that I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself.

The morning of the race was dreary, cold, and drizzly, and during the first mile I thought perhaps my fingers might go numb, but by mile two I was feeling good. My sister and I ran together the entire time and crossed the finish line at almost the same second. Our time was more than twice the time of the winner (who ran it in 18:56–just over 6 minutes a mile) but we did it and it was for a good cause.

The route brought Alison and I past our old junior high and high schools, my husband’s childhood home and church, many former homes of friends, and our own house, which we lived in from 1983 to 1998. We jogged by and marveled at the size of trees we remembered helping our father plant. We puzzled over the strange fencing choice of later owners. And I realized with a measure of horror and sadness that someone had cut down my beloved apple tree.

My tree. The one I spent untold hours sitting in, just me and my little girl thoughts. The one I could scamper up in but a moment, knowing, as I did, where all the right limbs were. The one that was covered in perfect, fragrant white blossoms that gently rained down on us each spring. The one that dropped bucketloads of tiny, deformed, sour green apples all over our lawn, which my sister and I would then have to gather in plastic grocery bags before dad mowed. (Alison, being the older, more responsible sister, would rush out to do the chore immediately upon being asked, while I, the slow-moving and distracted second child, would wander out once I heard the mower in the side yard to find that she had picked up all the hard green apples and left me the brown, gooey, rotting ones. Every time.)

It was gone. In its place was a little chintzy wooden jungle gym with a plastic slide, such as you might buy at Menards or Home Depot. A jungle gym? Why would you remove a gorgeous tree God clearly made for climbing and replace it with a freaking jungle gym? Did they not see that this was like draining a perfectly lovely lake only to replace it with one of those hideous blue inflatable above-ground pools? Now, I had asked my parents several times for a jungle gym as a child. Our neighbor had one, but we could only use it if he was out there, already playing, and invited us to come over. But Dad always said no. He didn’t want one because he thought they were tacky. They are. Still, you wouldn’t have had to cut down the world’s most perfect climbing tree to fit one into the yard. Why would they do such an idiotic and heartless thing?

But the race went on and I had to leave behind the monstrosity of the jungle gym in order to complete the task at hand.

On the way back to our parents’ condo after the race, Alison and I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee and a snack and met someone that Bill Bryson might describe as “an arrestingly congenial white-haired gentleman wearing a bright red shirt that declared on the front in bold white block letters, ‘Official Canadian Greeter,’ and on the back ‘Cliff, Numéro 1.'” When pressed, Cliff admitted he was not Canadian but that he had visited Nova Scotia with his wife. He said many other charming, old-man things and was a delightful addition to our respite from the gray drear outside.

After showers and lunch and Scrabble, I headed home again accompanied by the voice of Bill Bryson describing his dissatisfying attempts to cover portions of the Appalachian Trail a bit at a time without his boon companion Stephen Katz. His vague disappointment matched the rainy weather through which I drove. And then about the time he and Katz met back up to tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, the rain stopped and the clouds in the distance over Lansing broke open, pouring the evening sun down upon earth with gracious abandon. At home I weathered an attack with Nerf swords carried out by my four-year-old son and chased a foam football around the yard as he, with fits of giggles, threw it backwards over his head to me in the deepening twilight.

We have no good climbing tree at our house, a thought that occasionally pains me as I see my boy scampering around at the many parks in our city. I feel in some way I have failed him by not providing that essential structure that afforded me so much desired solitude. But at least, I can now tell myself, there’s nothing sacred for some heartless future homeowner to cut down.