Sunday, November 11, 2007

The School of Hard Knocks

Today I'm not talking specifically about contests though they're a huge part of the journey to publication.
A non-writing friend once asked me how long I’d been writing and I told her. She said, “You’ve been in school for eight years.” The comment startled me, but then I thought how right on she was.

I’m calling the experiences during those years, and the two years since, the school of hard knocks. Not original, but apt. Ten years of practicing and polishing craft through contests and critiques, how-to books, and online classes. It’s not always good to skip a grade in school and it’s not always best to sell before we’re prepared to handle that career. Not that I saw it at the time, but I submitted to publishers long before my work was ready. I should have studied longer and submitted later.

Last year I sold my first book to Steeple Hill. And I discovered I still have lots to learn about writing, about promotion, about every facet of this business. The published writers I know continue to learn and grow their talent under the tutelage of editors, and if necessary, reinvent themselves. Is it possible no writer ever swings that tassel and graduates? I suspect that isn't the goal.

The one goal most of us possess is seeing our words in print. Rejection hurts the worst when the work is first-rate, truly ready for publication, but the market isn't. It's when we're teetering on the verge of publication that perseverance takes guts as wonderful manuscripts gather dust waiting for a genre to come back into vogue, for an editor/agent to “get” the work, for a connection and request at a writers’ conference.

Our youth pastor called it having patience in the waiting room. Some waiting rooms are tough places to be—waiting to conceive a baby, for the return of health, for a wayward child to get his life together…for the call.
In my waiting room, I wore one of those pointed dunce caps, traipsing across reams of rejections to write on the chalkboard for the hundredth time, “I won’t take these personally.” Most likely you've felt the same.

Why do we keep writing when we keep getting slapped down? Perhaps we have some God-given drive that keeps us at it. Or that last contest win helps us hang in. Or maybe we’re just too stubborn to quit. Whatever enables us to persist, I believe if we don’t give up, good things will happen. And when they do, the fulfillment of our dreams is worth every scrape and bruise.

As a friend said in an email, “…and sometimes, in between the darkest clouds, sunshine will pour down unexpectedly upon your upturned face and the world will turn shiny and bright, a joy to be behold.” That’s hope.

May the sun shine on you.


  1. Wow, Janet, beautifully written. You said it all. And I, for once, can't add a thing. Revel in it ... it doesn't happen often! :)

  2. Julie not adding something is a date to note on everyone's calendar...

    November 11, 2007. Just in case you don't have one handy!

    Janet, ditto Julie's remarks. The picture you painted of storm clouds split by sun is perfect. The sun always seems brighter by contrast, and the clouds darker. Great analogy.

    And hanging in there when common sense tells you to pack up your bags and head home is the persistence that pays off.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Oh, man, scratch that date. Duh. Talk about not checking the calendar.

    The date for Julie's rare reticence is actually November 12, 2007.

    Just sayin'...

  4. Do any of you Seekers feel you submitted too early or am I the only goofball who did?

  5. Oh, Janet, I should have jumped on that bandwagon.

    I have to duck my head every time I pass Krista Stroever at a conference. Pretend I dropped something on the floor and root beneath table coverings while she passes by, hoping she doesn't recognize my shoes. When I was brand new (and so sure I was good, LOL!) I sent a proposal into SH...

    Got a triple request! Hooray! This is it, my big break.

    Only, stupid newbie contest mistake:

    I didn't realize that my plot and my characterization weren't up to par with my openings. (Kind of takes us back to last week's discussion on contest junkies.)

    I schooled myself then to going back over each manuscript, dumping some, re-writing, and then applying what I learned to my new projects. The results garnered me stronger books, stronger hooks and a writing style that works for me.

    I'm pretty certain there's a HUGE poster with my name on it at SH, circled in bold, bright red with the trademark strike through the center to warn editors with: "BEWARE: Really bad writer approacheth" beneath my name.

    But that was then and this is now, and Krista's the only one who saw how awful that early stuff was, so it could be worse. And that experience showed me that I:

    A. Needed a crit partner (Love you, Sandra and my Seeker buds who are never to busy to offer advice, counsel, and the occasional necessary smackdown or commiseration.)

    B. Needed more experience

    C. Needed more teaching, practice, practice, and more practice

    D. Needed to understand the industry better (like not offering personal opinion online because there are myriads of people reading your stupidity and it is evermore traceable. Duh.)

    The list goes on, but that's enough to let you know I totally understand, right?


  6. Ruthy, you've made me feel better, but only a little. I never got a request for anything in those early days. Not even a partial. Stupidly I sent query letters only and wasted a lot of time.

    Eventually I learned to send the first three chapters with the query, even when the guidelines said otherwise because most editors can't resist giving the opening a look. And if the writing is strong, they might get hooked.

    Of course sending the partial before the book is ready and having it rejected by an editor loses your chance with her with that book, no matter how much stronger it becomes. I suppose you could change the title and hope no one notices, but I wouldn't bank on it.

    So I messed up with that first book. Trust me it's no loss.

  7. So, although it's a public forum, I'm going to ask anyway, because I'm so enjoying this blog and I'm learning so much: How does a relative newbie know when she's ready to submit? Because she's new, should she automatically assume she's not? I'm not talking brand spanking new but has been learning and taking classes and doing the things necessary to learn. At some point, don't you have to just get out there?

  8. Wonderful question, Patricia! The first thing I'd recommend is let the book set a couple weeks. Often we're in such a hurry, we don't wait long enough to give our manuscripts a fresh look. When you've let it set a while, read it again. Look at it with a critical eye. Be ruthless. Revision is part of the process. Don't slight it.

    Look for strong conflict. Do your characters have clear goals, strong motivations and believable conflicts? Every scene should move the plot or show characterization. Both is better. Does the hook pull the reader in? Read your dialogue aloud. Check for repetitive words. Lots of books list amatuerish things to look out for. Or we could toss out a list for you.

    The checklist could go on forever, but if you have a gripping story with strong conflict and characters readers will care about, you're ready. That doesn't mean everything is perfect. If our goal was perfection, we'd never submit.

    If you're still unsure, ask someone to read the book whose opinion you value. Get the Donald Maass workbook and see how your story compares to his techniques.

    I'm sure the Seekers will have other suggestions. This group isn't shy about speaking up. :-) The main thing is to look at your book with a detached eye, as much as that's humanly possible.

    Hope this helps. If not, ask more questions. Nothing makes us happier.

  9. As much as Janet regrets sending a book in too early and Ruthy feels the need to hide under tables, the truth it, I think when you feel ready, send the book.
    Do you belong to a critique group?
    Have you entered any contests and gotten critiques that way.
    Janet saying set the book aside for a while is good advice.
    What I do when I finish a book is start a new one.
    then at some point, when you've forgotten what you MEANT to say and only can read what you actually said, open that earlier book up again and read it.
    But I promise you, Patricia
    You will get rejected by 100% of the editors you never submit a manuscript to.
    You will be turnd down by 100% of the agents you never query.
    You will lose 100% of the contests you never enter.
    So go for it.
    And uh...Ruthy cupcake?... I'm pretty sure the reason Krista is afraid of you has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR BOOK.

  10. Mary is right. I hate when that happens. :-) If you want publication, you have to submit to contests, to agents, to editors.

    If a writer's problem is fear of feedback or of submitting, then s/he'll revise and revise and never see it as good enough.

    I was talking to the writer who types The End and is elated, certain s/he's done a great job and sends before giving the revision process the time it takes.

    I suspect every writer knows which side of the coin they're on.

  11. I sent too early, too--I think I STILL send too early sometimes, but being in my 50s (and not even the early ones anymore. sigh) has made me feel as though if I'm not being proactive, time's awastin'!

    Well said, though, Janet. Well said, all of you--thanks for sharing.

  12. Mary said: And uh...Ruthy cupcake?... I'm pretty sure the reason Krista is afraid of you has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR BOOK.

    I haven't laughed that loud all day, Mary. Thank you! I needed that. :)

  13. Great post, Janet. And yes, I submitted looong before my work was ready, but of course I didn't know that until much later, looking back.

    And would I have done it differently? Wpuld waiting have pushed me closer or drove me further away? I don't know. Sometimes we have to just jump on out there and try our wings to see how strong we are.

    Hmmm, now we know why some people use pseudonyms. It keeps editors from recognizing their name. Ruthy, you should have thought of that before you plastered your story all over the internet.

  14. Okay, sure, have your laughs, you guys. And OF COURSE they're at my expense.

    Huge sigh here.

    Another one.

    Patricia, you got lots of good advice today.

    Now throw a dart and decide what to do, LOL!

    When I first started working with Sandra, I knew I had good starts. I fell apart in the middle.

    So look at that baby and check it out. Janet gave you a lot of good things to look for.

    But above all, keep practicing. Keep writing. Get your name out there.

    And thanks for playing online with us. We're bossy women. We love telling people what to do, since heaven knows our kids don't listen to us anymore.



  15. We're all usual. :)
    but the point is, we probably all submit too soon at first...unless of course someone gets the magic first book published on their first try.
    But I think an editor knows that too. They don't think Get me a PHOTO of this one to use as a dartboard and a horrible warning for the future.
    No, instead they think...she's not ready yet.
    I read somewhere...and I can't remeember the exact statistics so I'll go ahead and make them up...but I read that of all the people who call themselves writers, only about one out of one hundred actually finish a book. So just proving to an editor that you're one of the chosen few is worth something.

  16. Good advice, Janet. I distinctly remember a short story I sold that wasn't published until months later. I read it in print and thought, SHAZAM. I'm pretty good. HA HA. We all deserve that sort of moment in our lives. We sure get enough of the OTHER moments—---un-requested.

    Everyone has there own benchmark on when a manuscript is ready, but most everyone has some sort of beta reader, whether it is a group, or another writer friend. I have a good writer pal who is multi-published, who only lets her husband read her stuff.

    Generally, my husband and my sister read my stuff but only in parts. I MAKE Ruth or Glynna read scenes when I am stuck. Then my daughter does a full read through for grammar for me and I pay her.

    I have also hired a retired, professional editor to do a full manuscript read.

    I think it is different for everyone. But you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket. I agree with Mary, I think many people say they are going to write a book and submit, than actually follow through.

  17. Hey, I sure will be glad when that sun shines on my upturned face and . . . what was the rest? Something about sweetness and light and everything's joy and peace? Yeah, sounds good. I'm still waiting. :-)

    Kidding. God has been good to me. When I'm the most discouraged, He sends me something big to encourage me. Like a contest win. Or he speaks to me in a dream. (It's true! I promise! You can read about it on my blog.) So that's why I haven't quit. Plus, I'm pretty driven when I get something in my head that I want to do.

    And I always submit things before they're ready. I'm impulsive.

  18. Ooopah. I meant to say, a contest FINAL, since I've never WON but have finaled twice. It's hard to imagine winning.

  19. Hi Liz! Thanks for dropping by. Seekers, Liz and I go way back.

    Hi Melanie. Finaling in contests is huge. Let us know when you win. With your attitude and persistence, I'm sure you will!
    The Seekers love contests and want to share in your good news.

    Thanks for the reminder, Mary and Tina. We should pat ourselves on the back for finishing a manuscript. And enjoy the process of creating. It's when I got the desire to sell that the wild roller coaster ride began!