QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Game is On--The Necessity of Persistence and a Commitment to Growth

Writing can be a discouraging business.  Less than 1 out of 100 writers who completes and queries a novel receives an offer of representation from a literary agent.  Those lucky and/or talented enough to be in that 1% are still not guaranteed the joy of seeing their book in print.  Only something like 60% of agented books sell to publishers (That includes books from established authors).

Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try.
Once the reality of the stats sets in, a writer reaches a decision point.  He must ask himself, "Do I give up and do something else, or do I learn how to play this game and stick with it?"

Now, I'm not making light of this business by referring to the process of getting published as a "game."  It is a game in that there are winners, losers and rules--lots of rules.

First of all, you must learn how to write.  Really write, not just put a story on paper.  One of the rejections I received from an agent on a full request on my first project was telling.  It said something to the effect of:

     Your story and characters are intriguing.  I was disappointed that the writing didn't live up to the premise. 

Okay.  Well, crap!  I had all my commas, semi-colons and quotation marks in the right places.  No run-ons, no sentence fragments that weren't intentional (like this one).  Gah!  I even had all the formatting correct.  So what gives?

Well, DUH!  Writing isn't grammar and punctuation.  Naturally, a writer has to be able to write correctly, but a writer has to write well.  I majored in English Literature in college, so I'm the master of the thesis paper and formulaic literary analysis.  That rejection letter brought it all into focus for me.  Writing fiction is an entirely different beast.
     I was disappointed that the writing didn't live up to the premise. 

Yep.  There it is again.  Those works rattle around in my head every time I sit down at my computer to write.  The fix?  I read everything I could get my hands on in the genre in which I write and paid attention to the writing itself in addition to the story.  And you know what I discovered?  The agent was right--my writing stunk!  

At this point, I vowed to get it right.  I put away that first project and its half-finished sequel and started a new, unrelated book.  I simplified my style and intensified my characterization.  I then found  a critique service through a university graduate program.  The professor critiqued my first thirty page of my first project and my new one.  She found things I do consistently in my writing that weaken it.  

I focused on the new project, which was superior to the first (Huge understatement--the first one was...well, it was a typical first novel: Overwritten and as a result, way too long).  I applied her suggestions from the first thirty pages all the way through the novel.

You have to learn the rules of the game.  And then you have to play better than anyone else.

Albert Einstein
After too many edits to count, I researched the process of querying and followed all the rules.  I was amazed at the difference between the reaction of agents to my new manuscript compared to my first one.  Night and day.  

My writing improves with every book I write.  I am so grateful to the agent who was honest with me and didn't just say, "No thanks," or, "Not for me, but another agent might feel differently."  She told me, in essence, "You have a strong story but your writing stinks.  Quit or fix it."

Imagination and talent is something we are born with, but writing skills are learned.  I'm certain that I will look back on my recent novel and think it's a total piece of garbage, but it did the trick and I got the agent.  And twenty years down the road when in a moment of complacency, I feel like my writing does live up to my premise, all I will have to do is read a the first few pages of a novel like THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman or THE SUMMER GUEST by Justin Cronin to bring me back to the reality that I will always have a long way to go.  

In the meantime, I'm going to press on and keep writing and growing.  I didn't even hesitate when I reached the point where I had to ask myself the question, "Do I give up and do something else, or do I learn how to play this game and stick with it?"  I'm in the game for keeps! 

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Calvin Coolidge
Hang in there everybody.  The only thing all published authors have in common is that they didn't give up.  


Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.


Stina said...

My first novel went the way yours did, Mary. My second is doing much better in terms of requests (I joined a crit group this time). Fortunately one agent was kind enough to point out two major errors that I was consistantly making . . . which were easy to fix once I knew what I was doing wrong. Now armed with a much improved ms, I'm waiting to hear back from another agent on a partial. At least now if she rejects it, it will more than likely be because she didn't fall in love with the characters or elements in my plot. And in the meantime, I continue to grow as a writer. And hopefully my next novel will be even better.

Angela Ackerman said...

What an excellent, excellent post! Thank you so much for sharing this. It's very hard not to get down in this business at some point or another, and some days it's difficult to keep going. Thanks for the inspiration.

Annie Louden said...

LOVED this post. I am in need of constant reminders that I must work hard and not give up. I'm always thinking writing should be instant gratification, and it just isn't.
The Coolidge quote is great. I'm going to put it on the wall above my desk!

goldchevy said...

I felt like you told my story here. I too am an English major. And as I continue to revise my first book, I know my writing isn't strong enough. How do I know this? Well, I have read the great writers and I continue to teach them. I know what's good. So I know my stuff ain't good. Yet. I think the suggestion of reading literature in your genre is great. I would add to it reading books about writing, taking classes if convenient, and going to conferences. I have picked up a lot of information about good writing from these things too.

Prairie Chicks Write Romance said...

An excellet post, Mary. I struggle every day with the statistics - why bother, you're not good enough, the mountain is way to high - but I always come back to the "I want this!" So, I keep going and, like Stina, continue to grow as a writer. One day my persistence will pay off.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

What an inspiring post! Thank you!!!

raballard said...

Thanks Mary, nothing mre needs to be added.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Thank you for the post. Very timely. I'm going to print out the Calvin Coolidge quote and tape it next to my computer. :)