Hello, readers —
Pardon me if I am a trifle giddy today — my good friend Jordan Rosenfeld (whose excellent blog on writing is well worth checking out)has just sold a book on scene writing to Writer’s Digest Books. It’s due out in January, 2007, and I’ll try to blandish her into sharing some of her insights here between now and then. This is definitely a book that deserves to be read, by a writer who genuinely knows her way around a scene.
Hooray for virtue rewarded!
There’s nothing like having writing buddies for mutual support, is there? This is such an isolating craft, and heavy competition makes it feel even more so: for me, keeping in close touch with friends who write has been essential for keeping my chin up for the long haul. Not just as first readers (although I do rely upon my sterling writing friends for that), but as mirrors of my own experience, to help remind me that the path of good writing to publication is seldom smooth. My hopes are multiplied many times over, following my friends’ manuscripts on their travels.
In other words, they help me remember that it’s not just me; the publishing world really is wacky. Talent and luck must go hand-in-hand in order to bring success, along with a healthy dollop of persistence. A sense of humor helps, too.
The more writers you know, the easier it is to keep the process in perspective. Since conference season is coming up, I can’t urge you strongly enough to consider conferences as possibilities not just for meeting agents and editors and taking classes, but also for making friends with other writers. Heck, you could even walk in with the intention of meeting enough new friends to start a critique group.
There will be rooms and rooms of people who share your passion to create — this is no time to sit in a corner and keep to yourself. Seriously, no matter how shy you are, you will already be armed with the best possible opening line for starting a conversation with a stranger: “So, what do you write?”
In addition to building a support group, these conference meetings can lead to a wealth of mutual aid. A few minutes of social effort can bring a lifetime of glowing back jacket blurbs and Amazon reader reviews. In a crowd of eager aspirants to publishing fame, all clamoring for the attention of a few agents and editors, it’s easy to forget that some of your now-unknown writer peers are going to make it, but some undoubtedly will.
You never know who might end up as, say, the resident writer on a major writing association’s website. Talk to the person sitting next to you at the conference.
I am harping on connections today, because I received a wonderful e-mail from talented and insightful reader Janet, asking for my thoughts on how to maintain hope during the long wait for recognition even the best writers face. I say talented not only because she wrote me a lovely missive, but because she mentioned that she has been receiving encouraging feedback from agents, what we in the biz call Rave Rejections. These days, when most agencies use form letter rejections for literally every query they reject (which did not used to be true), the fact that someone at an agency took the time to make an individualized comment is actually a very strong sign that Janet’s work is impressing people.
I know — it’s perverse. But since writers get so little feedback from agents and editors in the query process now, we have to take our comfort and encouragement wherever we can find it.
Rave rejections are a double-edged sword. They are flattering, of course, because they are so rare, but by the same token, they are in fact rejections, and thus depressing.
For many years, I was the queen of the rave rejection: I’ve had agents hand-write, “Hey, this is one of the best query letters I have ever read, but I’ll have to pass!” in the margins of form letter rejections; editorial assistants would praise my work to the skies in long letters of regret. I once had a novel make it all the way to an editorial meeting at a good small publishing house; apparently, there was quite an argument about it. The subsequent rave rejection letter gave the details of that argument, along with a review of my book that was so glowing that it shouldn’t merely have been on the back jacket of the book — it should have been on my tombstone. I’ve heard less glowing eulogies.
And yet it was rejected. Maddening. The editor even sent me a present, another book from the publishing house, as sort of a consolation prize.
It is at times like these that a writer needs her writing buddies. Who but another writer would really be able to sympathize with a near miss — or, indeed, with the quotidian difficulties of keeping one’s chin up throughout the querying process?
Yes, other kith and kin can be helpful, even wonderful, but it may not always be apparent to those unfamiliar with the vagaries of the publishing industry that the book itself may not be at fault. Although, to be fair, my sense of this problem may well be heightened at the moment, as I have just returned from having dinner with my brother-in-law, who is famous for bouncing up to me like a golden retriever on speed every time he sees me and barking, “So — when is your book coming out? What’s going on? Why isn’t it published yet?”
I appreciate his concern, of course, and I certainly understand his confusion — my memoir has now been available for presale on Amazon and B & N for more than 7 months, so I suppose it is only natural for a layperson to expect that the book itself might appear in print sometime in the near future. What he can’t seem to understand, what most of my non-writing friends can’t seem to understand, is that the publication date is, like so much else in the publication process, utterly outside the author’s control, and barking at me about it only makes me feel worse about that.
Other writers, bless them, do understand that salient fact.
Because I am lucky enough know so many writers at all levels of success — and honestly, some of the best writers I know have not yet been able to find the right agent — I know that the problem of the well-meaning but ignorant friend’s badgering is in fact endemic to the writing life. As anyone who has ever sold a book can tell you, starting from the moment you sign with an agent, eager non-writer friends will badger the author about the book’s progress, as though any delays or problems must be the author’s fault. Or as if the only possible reason that a book has not yet been delightedly scooped up and championed by the publishing world is that it isn’t very good.
As anyone who has spent much time around a group of good writers knows, there are plenty of great books out there that have trouble finding agents and/or editors. And as writers with querying experience, we know that. Other people don’t, and on our bad days, their kindly-meant questions can feel like deliberate cruelty.
Often, too, our non-writing kith and kin do not understand the publishing world well enough to support us in our triumphs, either. It is far from uncommon — I tremble to report this, but it’s true — for authors over the moon about being signed by a great agent to be deflated by the following exchange with non-writing friends:
Writer: My dream agent just signed me!
Friend: That’s great! When’s your book coming out?
Writer (a little uncomfortable): Well, it doesn’t really work like that. The agent markets the book to editors, you see, and the editors are the ones who actually buy the book.
Friend (disappointed): Oh. So you really aren’t any closer to the book’s being published.
Writer (now sorry that he brought it up at all): No, it’s a necessary step toward being published.
Friend (now utterly confused): Well, let me know when the book comes out.
As someone who has both won a major literary contest AND has a book contract in hand, I can tell you with absolute assurance that well-meaning non-writers will take ANY announcement of a significant step forward in a writer’s career as identical to a book contract. The working writer spends a LOT of time explaining the process to these people, just as the agent-querying writer does. In fact, other than when my work has actually appeared printed on paper (or here in this blog), I’m not sure that my non-writing friends have any idea why my work does not instantly appear on bookshelves across the nation the moment it falls off my fingertips.
In my dark days, before I was getting much recognition, I even had good-hearted friends sit me down, with all of the seriousness of an intervention, and beg me to stop wasting my life in the pursuit of a constantly disappointed dream. They meant well, so I did not throw things at them.
They all mean well; I know that. I fully realize that to someone who has not felt the birth pangs of a manuscript first-hand, or known what it is to rush to the mailbox every day, searching for a positive response to a query, what we writers do can look suspiciously like masochism. Or self-delusion. Or pursuit of a very time-consuming, very demanding hobby.
To quote the very talented, very persistent Louisa May Alcott, who had been working in the writing trenches for a decade and a half before LITTLE WOMEN hit the big time: “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”
To a writer, that sounds like a brave and realistic approach to a life entertaining the muse and courting the publishing world. To a non-writer… well, see my earlier remark about masochism.
This is why I highly recommend to anyone who is in the writing business for the long haul to make as many good writing friends as possible. People who speak the same language you do, peers who can sympathize with your trials and cheer your triumphs with clear understanding. Join a writers’ group; go to conferences. Participate in an online forum. Share what you’ve learned, and hear what others have to say.
And, perhaps most importantly for your own sanity and well-being, learn to derive joy from the progress of others. Help them where you can; allow them the pleasure of helping you. It will help sustain you as you push forward.
The more writing friends you have, the higher the probability that on the day when you are feeling most discouraged, you will open your e-mail to find the glad news that a friend has landed a great agent. Or sold a book. Or finished a novel. Or really nailed that short story. Because you are a writer, and one of the many special skills you possess is the ability to understand better than the rest of the population why these interim achievements — the ones the golden retrievers of the world have trouble seeing as anything but delays on the road to success — are in fact very, very worth celebrating.
So here’s to Jordan for putting in all of the years of hard work that lead to this book contract — well done! Here’s to Janet, too, for garnering that hard-to-get encouraging feedback — great job! And here’s to all of you out there who have the courage, tenacity, and faith in your own talent to keep sending out queries, using your words as a battering ram against the slow-opening doors of the industry — good for you!
Let’s help one another keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini