A conversation in a local coffee shop the other day sent my mind in a whimsical flurry back to where I was a handful of years ago. The point that nearly broke me as a writer, and it had nothing to do with finishing a first draft.
I was talking to someone about my off-grid cabin, the conversation slipped into my novels and content creation, and he mentioned a friend of his who had thrown in the writing towel fairly recently. The reason that person had quit struck me directly in the feels, because I've been there.
If you've be an advocate of self-publishing from the start, this might not resonate so much, but anyone who has tried to land an agent may know this devil in the details far too well. If you are a budding novelist, please take in the entirety of this article and let it simmer. Come back to it again if needed. This one mistake will most certainly sink any hope of a writing career, and you don't want to make it.
So the Story Goes
Many people think the first draft is the hardest part of writing a novel. The truth is that draft is the first in a series of hurdles that will continue for the rest of your life. This isn't a 100 meter dash, it's a steeple chase...that never ends.
My new friend recounted the story something like this:
A friend of mine wrote a book.
He spent a long time working on it. I don't know how you guys normally do things, but he was trying to get an agent and pitch the book to big companies. He finally ended up tossing in the towel.
Sound familiar? Let me quote you another little passage:
After pitching it to over 100 agents, ... I cut the sequel short, and had a lapse of "writer's block" for three years. Strike that, I let myself fail, for three years.
~McConnell - Finish the Damn Book!I had gone through exactly what this guy's friend had, and it took a pretty fired-up poker to get my butt back in the writing chair. I don't know if this young writer will experience the same, but I plan to meet with him someday and educate him more about the process.
The Little Dragon of Writing
Among a lot of other advice, one thing I was told over and over again in the early days of novel writing was that the first book is just that. The same root that causes this "writer's block" nonsense in the drafting phase (The seed of doubt, or the dragon's egg) spawns something far darker and scarier in the editing phase. Looking back on your own words after writing 100,000 is pretty daunting. But even that is nothing but the hatching of a baby dragon that will learn to breath fire as you enter the querying phase.
When you start to query, if you're smart, you'll have your query letter torn apart by other writers. They will question the merit of your story as an agent would. They'll drill you about the stakes, the plot, and how dull you make the whole thing sound. They'll stab at your ability with hopes that the book isn't as boring as your query letter
But all of this is good. You hammer down the query and perhaps revise a few things in your manuscript. You probably put in another round of editing just for good effect, and you're ready to face the dragon that is rejection.
My first novel was rejected over 100 times, mostly on the strength of the query letter alone. Without sending a response, these people told me that my story sucked without ever reading it.
This has happened before, and it'll happen again, maybe to you! I can think of one blog follower that's reading this right now with her eyes sharpened to my every word. For you, I'll drop a little hint here: Be ready for rejection. Expect it. Welcome it. Write the next book.
The cloud of darkness during the submission process can be daunting. Ask me how many of my stories have been tossed out by almost every literary mag that exists before I got a tiny spot in an upstart mag for the second year in a row. Not exactly a Nobel Prize, but it's a little feather in my cap.
By the time you've worn yourself out sending matched queries to agent after agent, been torn apart by your peers, and look upon your shiny new script with scorn, a little piece inside of you will die. An alchemist would call this step putrefication or calcination. A phoenix can only rise from dead ashes.
Rebirth, New Life, New Stories
So the dragon gave you a good roasting. So what?
Even before I got back into writing again, I encountered a ton of good advice to supplement the bad. It wasn't enough, but I'll share some of it with you now, just so we're on the same page.
- The first book never sells, and rarely ever finds an audience. It almost NEVER even finds an agent. This is a simple fact of life, and you need to deal with it. Lucky doesn't happen to everyone. Hell, it doesn't even happen to 1%. Right now, somewhere on Earth, someone is giving up on their manuscript after tasting the dragon's fire.
- There is more than one story inside of you. You might not believe it now, but there is. Trust me. And those stories are better than the gem that you're trying to push off as your masterpiece. You have other stories to tell, and they'll get better as you write them. You're little work of art isn't the best that you can do, it's just the best you could do on your first attempt. Can you imagine giving up in any other part of life because you didn't go pro on your first try? Get real.
- Writing is a passion of love. You started because you like doing it. So keep fucking doing it!
- The last one here was the kicker for me. I had a secret weapon. My brother said something to me that broke the spell. His words were, "If you don't publish that book, then I'm going to take it and publish it!"
It would be wrong not to paraphrase my favorite Steven Pressfield story here. After his first movie hit the theaters, the reviews came in, and it sucked. He even drove out of town to see how it was playing in other theaters. Same result.
He asked the guy at the ticket booth, "How's King Kong Lives?" (did I get that title right? Doesn't matter) The register jockey gave him a big thumbs down and replied, "Miss it, man. It sucks."
After talking with his mentor, he was given the option. Take a few knocks and keep writing, or quit. Thanks from all of us, Steven, that you kept writing.
We all get crushed. We get hard knocks. Our egos get beat down and withered. Those hi-toned authors at the last con may dress themselves with a confident facade, but trust me, they have plenty of skeletons and monsters in their closet too.
One friend of mine landed a deal with a publisher, through an agent, and his book went out of print a year later. Writing is the kind of job where you face rejection and harsh words all the time. The more successful you are, the more people there are in the world that hate your work. It goes with the territory.
The silver lining in all of this is that you aren't standing on the sidelines, or shouting from the nose-bleeds. You're down there in the mud, bleeding your heart into something you love. So screw the haters. You have two choices. You can keep writing. Or you can quit.
Greatness courts failure.
~Tin CupActually, I encourage you to look up that scene on YouTube. There's a lot of wisdom in very few lines... here you go:
How to Carry On
Keep writing. It's that simple. If you have to shelf the first novel, or second, or tenth, then who cares? Some of us put our work on WattPad. Some self-publish. Some start their own media companies, or do freelance work for a while. Some of the best shit that I've ever written doesn't have my name on it, and I made less than minimum wage writing it. But it's out there in the world, helping people live their lives while helping others build their businesses. The goal of every story is to last, to be told and heard, to be repeated, and to live on.
Some stories stay small and local, others go big time. It's not a mark against you. It's just what the market is shopping for that day. Don't be let down by rejection slips, failed queries, and all of this other nonsense. Start writing another story. If you played the agent game and got burned, then welcome to the fucking club! You're doing what you're supposed to be doing. You didn't fall for a predatory publisher, and you finished a freaking novel. Give yourself a pat on the back, and start on the next story.
I don't recommend framing your first story as a trilogy, even if it has the potential, for that reason. You're first story is akin to your first painting, your first gig as a musician, your first marathon, or your first day at a new job.
Yes, writing a novel takes a while. Editing takes longer, and marketing is a frickin' nightmare. Embrace it. Keep telling stories, keep honing your writing, and get on the path that YOU are meant to be on. Don't worry so much about the cookie-cutter professional publishing thing. You can always submit new books to new agents, and perhaps one day you will land one, but keep telling stories. If you stuck it out through one novel, you can write another one, and the next one might be better than the first.
Keep learning. Keep growing. Drive your own plot.
I had a family member to give me the kick in the ass I needed to write the Incorporated series, which led me to the original publisher for Viral Spark. Don't count on having that. If you need to be kicked in the pants, I'm here, and I have a heavy pair of boots. Shoot me an email. But it's far better for you to realize that getting kicked in the teeth is part of the game. So what? Move on. You have other stories to tell, and if you don't, the world will never see them, and they'll die. ... or quit. But understand now that quitting will be your own choice. You can't unread this article, and now you know that this is something that ALL of us go through at some point. Slaying these little dragons is part of the job.