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A Little Perspective and Believing in Yourself

JK Rowling was on the Daily Show last Monday, and in addressing Jon Stewart saying he’s impressed that she is letting the magical world rest and writing another book after the success of Harry Potter, she said,

But you know, it’s funny because a lot of people say this is very brave.  I’m not sure it felt very brave.  The brave thing, honestly, was working on something for seven years with no hope of getting it published.  So I look back on those days and think I was brave then because I showed a lot of self-belief.

Seven years.  She didn’t write the first book during NaNoWriMo, send it out to a few agents, and the rest is history.  She experienced what most fiction writers experience.  She had an idea and she fell in love with it.  She worked on that novel for years.  She went through ups and downs with how she felt about it.  And then she had to work to get an agent.  Then she got an agent and she had to work to get a publisher.  Then she got a book deal and she still had the uphill battle of having her book noticed in the market.  You may gloss over that part of the story in your head when you think about her success, believing because you loved her books so much that it must have been a straight shot for her, a slam dunk.  But it was seven years of her life believing in herself before the rest of us believed in her.

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And this is true for most fiction writers.  Dick Wimmer’s obit pointed out that his book — the one that received a favourable review in the New York Times — was rejected 162 times by agents and publishers.  162 times.  25 years.  He believed in himself for 25 years, even though other people were telling him via their rejection letters that his book wasn’t worth dedicating his time and energy to see into publication. (Okay, so that’s not really what most rejection letters mean; but that is how we often internalize them.)  Oh, and lest you think that getting a second novel published is a given after the success of the first, he had 83 rejections for his second book.

Judy Blume — two years of plugging away to get her first book published — and that doesn’t count the writing time before starting the process of querying.  She writes,

I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent.

Yes, this is the same Judy Blume whose books shaped your childhood.  If she hadn’t kept plugging away, you would not have the chant, “I must I must I must increase my bust” running through your head right now.

Beyond the flukes such as EL James, most fiction writers take years writing their first book, and it may not even be their first book that lands the agent.  They may have several manuscripts completed before they finally sign with an agency.  Having an agent doesn’t even mean you’re going to be published.  Plenty of authors find that it takes months or years (or not at all) to get a publishing contract.  And even then, like Rowling, you still need to figure out how to get eyes on your work, and some of that is that readers are drawn to writing talent and good stories and some of it is random luck.

And through it all, as Rowling says, you have to be brave.  You have to believe in yourself.  You have to understand that publishing is partly about talent and partly about perseverance.  If you want to be published, you need to be willing to spend 7 years of your life on the chance.  You need to be willing to be rejected 162 times.  And then you still need to show up for the 8th year or the 163rd rejection because as Judy Blume says in her essay, the only way to publish is to submit, submit, submit.

If reading that last paragraph fills you with dread, I don’t blame you for thinking that publishing doesn’t sound like a good use of your emotional energy.  It took me ten years to get my first book published.  I stopped writing for a bit when we were doing treatments the first time, and there were times when I wasn’t querying or working on anything.  But it’s not as if I left my MFA program and was holding a book a few months later.  Ten years.  That’s about how long it took to see my first book in print.  Ten years of believing in myself.

If you aren’t freaked out entirely by the last two paragraphs or you can gird yourself for the long haul in knowing what potentially lies ahead, I think the traditional publishing experience has highs that balance out the lows.  If you are the sort of person who can submit, submit, submit; who can have a good cry and then send out the next query; who can believe in your story even without the external motivation of accolades or awards, then you have what it takes to be an author.

I write this as both the other side to the jealousy post that I wrote last week, as a reminder to myself to think about the back story whenever I’m jealous of a success (and seriously, you would think going through infertility and knowing what a lot of us go through to build our family that I’d naturally consider the whole book and not just the final chapter of every writer’s story), and as an injection of self-belief in case you’re going into NaNoWriMo or simply picking back up the writing project you set aside for a bit.

Put these words above wherever you work: I believe in myself even when the rest of the world doesn’t know how good my story is yet.

And if you need the reminder said in a different way, publishing is not a race.  With the exception of time sensitive books such as a book about the current election, you are the only person putting the pressure on yourself to finish something in a certain amount of time unless you are under contract.  NaNoWriMo is great if it lights a fire under your ass, but I really do worry about people judging themselves on their ability to write intensely for a month.  Don’t race others, don’t race yourself, just write at the speed in which you need to write, at the speed everything else in your life dictates, and you’ll reach the end when it is time to reach the end.


1 Stephanie { 10.21.12 at 8:39 am }

My friend is a musician. People often tell her how lucky she was because she got successful so quickly. She’s always amazed by this, since getting successful took 13 years of playing dingy bars for a handful of dirty five-dollar bills, or taking buses to music festivals where she’d play for free in the hopes that she might sell a few CDs. Youtube sensations and EL James aside, I think that “overnight success” usually follows years and years of hard, sometimes nearly hopeless, work.

I’m doing nanowrimo. For me, it’s more about resetting my internal schedule than anything else. I don’t write enough because I think that I don’t have the time; nanowrimo proves to me that I can MAKE the time for something that I care about. The fire that it lights in me stays lit for months. Then, around this time of year, it fizzles out. November first is about lighting a match and getting the fire burning again.

2 Lollipop Goldstein { 10.21.12 at 8:55 am }

That is a perfect reason to do NaNoWriMo. Because then it also becomes writing for yourself, writing to make yourself happy. And that’s within your control.

I only worry when people put their potential happiness in publishing because THAT is out of everyone’s control. That’s putting your happiness in someone else’s hands. And they may treat your happiness with care or they may not.

I love the idea of proving to yourself that you can make time for the things you want to make time for. I think we all need to remember that once in a while.

3 Christa Singleton { 10.21.12 at 9:16 am }

Publishing sounds almost like infertility, really. As you said in your post “If you want to be published, you need to be willing to spend 7 years of your life on the chance. “. Just change one little word in that sentence and you pretty much sum up an infertile’s life.

4 KeAnne { 10.21.12 at 9:42 am }

Great post, Mel. It’s an excellent reminder that publishing, just like most things, takes a lot of time and energy. Overnight successes are the exception not the norm. It makes me think of Gladwell’s Outliers and the fact that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. As with infertility, it’s a poignant reminder that while someone’s success looks easy, we don’t know the entire story and are too quick to gloss over the years and hard work necessary to get there.

5 Turia { 10.21.12 at 12:56 pm }

Thank you for encouraging me to be brave. I have the complete manuscript sitting under my desk that has gathered dust for four years now because infertility treatments and starting a PhD and pregnancy and mothering have all provided easy excuses to not work on it. But the truth of the matter is I’m afraid to send it anywhere in case it gets rejected, because I have always been good at doing things right the first time (with the obvious exception of getting pregnant). So thank you for reminding me that getting the manuscript done was only the first hurdle.

6 tigger62077 { 10.21.12 at 1:17 pm }

Thank you for this. I have several author friends that could stand to be reminded of this. Two are indie authors, self-published. Two are still trying to GET published. I sense how hard it is for them to be rejected time and again, and I am hoping that reading this will help them a little.

7 IrisD { 10.21.12 at 1:17 pm }

I just looked up NaNoWriMo and it sounds wonderful. I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about writing and of course haven’t given it a try. Of course, I’d love to publish and be an overnight success, but I’ve been looking at writing also as a creative outlet, as something to do for the joy it could give me. My question is, I have only been able to find copyright information and NaNoWriMo when I google exactly that, but can’t find any details on the site. Is there any protection for your creative output once you put it out on a site like this?

8 clare { 10.21.12 at 4:53 pm }

i just put that sentence into my outlook calendar as a daily reminder… i think I need it as I push through this thesis writing. Thank you.. we do have stories worth believing in, despite the mountains of evidence from outside (and the lies we tell ourselves). great post! and congrats on your book deals:)

PS i also just loved what she said about benefits in the UK and how she views society helping during the tough years — look at the benefits they got back!

9 Rebecca { 10.21.12 at 4:53 pm }

I found this blog post to be quite inspiring. I actually have a B.S. in English and did seem to have a talent for descriptive writing. Unfortunately I let a rejection from the New Yorker get to me along with the lack of familial support. Now I just need to shut myself into my home office and learn to write for me once again.

BTW, I following you for ICLW but now know more about the NaNoWriMo. Doubt I’d be up to deadlines such as those, however, it is worth a try and will probably improve my atrophied grammatical and punctuation skills.

10 Ruthy { 10.21.12 at 7:59 pm }

What a perfect post… have been so discouraged with my work lately and “submit, submit, submit”- just what I needed to hear. the genius of Judy Blume is always appreciated 🙂

11 serenity { 10.21.12 at 8:30 pm }

10 years. That’s amazing.

You know, it just struck me that NaNoWriMo is coming up. I’ve always toyed with the idea. Writing for myself? Fiction? Wow.



12 Justine { 10.22.12 at 1:13 pm }

I love the point about the race. Indeed, it’s not a race because not only can’t we “compete” against people who are so different from us; but we can’t even tell where we’ll end up. I used to tell my students that. Where do you think you’re going? I’d ask. Why are you in such a hurry to get there?

Because then, you know … life happens to you. And you have to go a different way anyway.

The constant is passion, I guess.

13 B,http://expectingtobeexpecting.wordpress.com/ { 10.22.12 at 11:10 pm }

Okay, so weird to read this, and so wonderful (also noticed that my last comment is riddled with errors, pls excuse).

I have been writing fiction for years now, just writing what I like. I’ve played with different genres and I have improved over time. But a couple of years ago work heated up and I stopped investing the time in my fiction (ostensibly I write for a living but I always joke that what I actually do is type for a living, haha).

And yet I think about my last “manuscript” all the time. I don’t think it could ever be published but I kinda need to go back and finish it. I’d done 3 drafts but at different times and stages and I’ll feel like I need to do one last draft, within a brief period of time, to close the project off. For me. Just for my own satisfaction.

I really liked working on it and I felt really excited every time I sat down to play with it but I started to feel silly that I was wasting so much time on something that would probably be very bad or seem silly if other people saw it.

But I really had fun when I was working on it, so why not take the time to finish it…..

Good post, as always.

14 Queenie { 10.22.12 at 11:12 pm }

I think this is true of success in all fields. As a society, however, we see people win American Idol and launch their careers, and these fast-food successes have become the narrative for what success looks like. In our instant gratification world, I think we’ve started to collectively believe that if we are going to be successful, it will just happen. Of course, that’s not true. Most successful people toil for years to make it happen for themselves, and have plenty of failure under their belt. Your post is an awesome reminder of that.

Also, thank you. Your passing reference to NaNoWriMo inspired me to sign up. You brought everything that’s been floating around in my head into focus for me.

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