QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Confidence and Determination

When I've written something and the words have just flowed, I sometimes feel like I'm looking down on the Seventh Day, basking in the warmth of my creation and proclaiming, It Is Good. I'll feel like I've captured the emotion and the angst; or the flavor, color, and texture of the world I envisioned. The characters will be as real as Real People to me. I'll feel that glow in my chest: Of course I'm a writer. This is something I was meant to do.

Now, as a psychologist, I believe it's not only okay, it's healthy to be able to say to yourself, "I did a good job on that." "I'm a good writer." You don't have to announce it to the world (in fact, you probably shouldn't!), but you're healthier if you have a secret little place inside with a nice big refrigerator to put up your accomplishments, and where you can nod and pat yourself on the back and think, I Did Good. I even have lots of professional terms to make that all sound more authoritative, like self-esteem, self-efficacy, and adequate mirroring on the Grandiose Pole. But I'm going to skip all that for right now.

If feeling good about what you'd written was as far as any of this went, all would be well. But so many of us have this urge, this drive, this need to get published. And what is that all about anyways? Few people make money publishing. It's cool, but unless you're Stephenie Meyer or JK Rowling or whoever this week's Hot Writer is, it's a passing cool that others soon forget. Getting published doesn't make you beautiful or thin or get you a Happily Ever After with whichever celebrity you drool over most.

Yet the need remains. So you sweat blood over a query and open a vein to get the synopsis right and then, hoping, praying, believing you've got something others will love, you start sending your work out to others.

Some writers start with crit buddies, some jump straight to agents and publishers; some do both simultaneously. And most soon discover that not everyone else thinks their work is so good.

According to Robert Heinlein, that's where a lot of people quit. In fact, he believed that only half the writers who actually put pen to paper (or words to screen) and finish what they start have the guts to submit to agents and publishers:
Writers...are inordinately fond of their brainchildren. They would rather see their firstborn child ravaged by wolves than suffer the pain of having a manuscript rejected. So instead they [only] read their manuscripts aloud to spouses and long-suffering friends.
But you're not satisfied to believe the friends and family who swear your work is fantastic -- you have to send your work out to people outside that little circle. And as the crits roll in and the rejections pile up, you look at your work with fresh eyes, and you realize it's miserable. It's embarrassingly horrible. You're embarrassingly horrible, and stupid besides to ever have believed someone else might be interested in the ridiculous stories you make up in your head.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Crit after crit, rejection letter after rejection letter.

Some throw in the towel right away. "The world just isn't ready for my material," they sniff, or they decide that all agents are self-important jerks who wouldn't know a good story if it ran them over. There are even websites that exist for the purpose of ranting about your rejections and throwing mud back at the agents who sent them. (Who are, by the way, human beings who are just doing their jobs as best they can. But that's another blog post.)

Other writers are worn down over weeks, months, or years of querying. Or by disapproving relatives. Or by savage critique "buddies." The rejection hurts. A lot.

But some always manage to drag themselves out of the dirt, brush themselves off, and try again. Just like they need to write, they need to keep trying to get published.

"Writing is a calling," says editor Betsy Lerner. "If the call subsides, so be it. [But] when writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit, but I kept going." She goes on:
Many writers have gathered their marbles and gone home for far less cause. It takes a supreme talent and fierce self-belief to write in the face of such acrimony... If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to you and your work, then you must stay focused. Ambivalence will never get you anywhere.
What it comes down to, I've read over and over again, is determination in the face of all that feedback, all those rejections. A willingness to learn, of course, but also determination to overcome and succeed:

** The degree of one's perseverance is the best predictor of success - Betsy Lerner

** In all manner of pursuits there's a tendency to overesimate brilliance and underestimate persistence. Talent is common. Determination is rare. -Ralph Keyes

** [The authors of the Chicken Soup books] instinctively understood that all those rejections were simply an uncomfortable part of the process that would eventually get them where they wanted to be. - literary agent Jeff Herman

** [Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken] Kesey was not even remotely the best writer in class [at the writing program at Stanford], but he was maniacally determined. - Classmate and writer Thomas McGuane

** Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
So where do you find the determination? According to Keyes, you have to hate the idea of being ignored, of never being read, more than you hate the pain of rejection. "It is some combination of ability and ego," adds Lerner, "desire and discipline, that produces good work." She continues:

A writer's success or faltering can usually be traced to some abundance or deficit of those elements. Some of the most gifted writers I've worked with were also the most self-sabotaging. Lack of discipline, desire for fame, and depression often thwart those whose talents appear most fertile, while those who struggle with every line persevere regardless.

In many ways, learning to deal with rejection from agents and publishers is just the first step. Because when you do manage to get published, you will have to deal with critics, the bloodthirsty pirahna in the sea of your success. People who have sudden, overwhelming success, are not prepared for it. And that may topple them and keep them from producing good work going forward. So keep running that gauntlet, and be proud of your calluses and scars, because they mean you believed in yourself enough to keep going.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

I've wanted to be published since I was 15. Now I'm almost 30 and still aiming for that goal.

It's hard to say why I want to be published. I think it's because it's like a stamp of approval or a gold star on my forehead, saying "You ARE good! You can write! You passed!"

Yeah, silly, but true. I feel that if I don't get that "gold star" I'm not a good writer, which is dumb. I think you have a good point - there are many good writers out there with good manuscripts, but it is our determination to keep going that will get us that gold star in the end.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hey, we have a lot in common--I too started to want to be published around 15.

And I appreciate exactly what you're saying about the gold star. I'm so glad to hear that you're determined to get there, too!

Anonymous said...

I love this post..It really is what seperates those who make it from those who don't - - - determination! Great job!!!

J.N. Future Author said...

im slightly scared of ever sending anything in. even friends have been very....brutal.

but first i need more than snippets!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Hey JN,

I've heard other new authors say that, that the idea of actually sending something in frightens them. I wonder if we should do an article on that?

Maybe you could help us by telling us more about how and/or why it frightens you? (You can email me (link is to the right) if you're interested in sharing more and you'd rather talk backchannel.

I also wonder a bit about your crit buddies. If they're brutal, maybe they're not the best crit buddies for you. We all need encouragement, especially when we're starting out. A good place to look for some new (or additional) buddies is on QueryTracker.net Forum or on RallyStorm (there are a number of writers' groups that are open to the public). Links to both sites are at the top of the blog and also in the sidebar to the right.

Thanks so much for your comment!