Monday, May 15, 2006

A Discouraging Word

You ever notice how when someone says, "I never do this" it means they are just about to do whatever it is they're speaking about?

Well, I never quote my email. Until now.

I get a lot of email of the, "Joe you're an inspiration" variety. I love getting this type of email, because it means I'm not just screaming into the wind. I used to joke that I was an inspiration to dozens. I now hear from dozens a month.

But this email really threw me, and I'm not sure how to react to it:

I just read your entire ‘tips’ series on your site (including the video). Very informative and entertaining. This should be required reading for anyone considering writing as a career.

Thank you, sincerely, thank you for sharing your experience, and for the sheer volume of useful, real-world information about writing and the publishing industry. Based on what I have learned, I have decided to burn my own book before it is even finished (I will have to print it out first), and as a replacement, take up Everquest as my life’s pursuit.

I will also pick up copies of all your books, as payment in kind for the sage advice on my career path. It was well worth it.

signed, A Future Fan, and Former Almost-Writer

A few things hit me at once when I read this.
  1. I just crushed someone's dream.
  2. Am I really that scary and discouraging when I talk about this business?
  3. That was a really well written letter, and this person probably has talent.

It's not a matter of opinion when I talk about how difficult publishing is. This business is brutal to get in, and brutal to stay in.

Though I only landed an agent 7 years ago, a lot has happened in the industry since then. Silly as it sounds now, when I was breaking in the Internet was still on the fringe of mainstream. Most agents and authors didn't have websites. There were no bloggers giving advice, telling me how the system actually worked. There were no huge writing websites or forums. The only way to talk to pros was through snail mail that took months.

For the newbie writer, the Internet is manna from heaven.

But is this information empowering, or discouraging? Do you require a certain amount of ignorance to slay the dragon, because you'd never even attempt it if you knew every single fact? Or is being forewarned being forearmed?

I've said before that wasting your life on impossible goals only leads to anger, frustration, discouragement, and depression. But in this society, we idolize people who beat the odds. We love the underdog stories, the "you'll never walk again" guy who wins in the Olympics, the "you're an awful singer" who winds up on MTV, the "rejected 500 times" guy who lands a three book deal. And we idolize these people for a reason--they we able to defy the odds and reach their goals, and didn't let anything stop them.

It's important to know your limitations. But it's also important to pursue your dreams. And don't let me, the Internet, or the publishing industry discourage you from trying.

You can do it. I'm proof.


William G. said...

Well said (you, not the other guy, though his email was crafted well).

I've interacted with a lot of writers via the net who get mad and quit when they meet the first sign of resistance or get that first inkling that the road to publication might not be lined with gold and greased with pixie dust as they'd first imagined. Either they quit writing, or they sink a fortune into some vanity press because they don't care to learn the business. I've gotten snarky feedback from editors before, and it does make me feel like throwing in the towel - but nothing, and I do mean nothing, about the difficulty or the improbability of making it in today's publishing climate should make someone quit their dream.

When I first started, my goal was to be rich and famous like everyone else. Now, I know better. I write what I love and I do it for me. Part of writing for me is learning the business and writing in such a way as to increase my odds of making it. When I do see my name on the spine of the book someday, it'll be because of people who helped me along the way. And if I don't, then it just wasn't meant to be. But it won't be because I didn't go down fighting.

I love the quote on the sidebar, "Fate is a future you didn't try to change." I think that says it all. Only fragile dreams can be crushed.

Anonymous said...

First... I don't think you crushed someone's dream. If he really and truly, in his heart of hearts dreamed of being a writer, nothing he read on your website or anyone else's could kill that dream. Now, he/she may well have gotten a wake-up call and felt some momentary disillusionment with that dream, but again if he's truly a writer... even if he does destroy his current work-in-progress, it won't be long before he'll be writing again.

You provide loads and loads of valuable information on your website, information that I haven't found anywhere else. Last night as I was reading through your account of your promotional tour, I started thinking... "I don't know if I could handle that." But then I started thinking... there are some things that he's doing that I could handle and maybe the other things I could learn to handle. And maybe there are new ways I can do the things he's doing that are more suited to my personality and way of being in the world.

So did you crush my dream? No way... after thinking things through you made me more determined to find a way to achieve my dream and do so in a way that's right for me.


Lorra said...

Like anything worth accomplishing, writing takes a great deal of perserverance, a willingness to learn from your mistakes and the ability to bounce back after rejection.

My advise to the discourage writer is to finish your manuscript - don't worry about perfecting it right now, just finish it. Then put it away for at least six months while you start something new and spend as much time as possible learning about the business of getting published.

Read as many books as you can in your genre - see what works and what doesn't. Join a critique group or writer's group and go to at least one writer's conference to learn more about the process of getting an agent/getting published.

When you read a novel with a sensibility similar to yours, try to find out who the author's agent is. Read about what agents in your genre have represented on and check agent's websites if listed. For $20/month you can also do research on Publisher's Weekly - very worthwhile expenditure.

But DON'T BURN YOUR MANUSCRIPT . . . unless you're looking for an excuse not to finish it and/or to put in the required blood, sweat and tears to get it published. If that's the case - fine. If not, burning it is a cop-out and you're cheating yourself.

If you're not absolutely sure, sleep on it. And good luck.

Mark Terry said...

Nah, you're not scary. Well, okay, maybe a little scary.

But if somebody was so discouraged by what they read on YOUR site that they quit, I can't imagine what they'd do after receiving the literally dozens of rejections (dozens being the minimum) he/she would get from agents, editors, publishers, and some of the comments they decide to give you. Form rejections aren't any fun and are pretty worthless, but I once had a comment along the lines, "I could relate more to the dog than the main character," that at the time hurt a bit, although I'm fairly amused by it now.

As you mentioned on your post about the best and worst things about being an author, even if you get published you're probably going to have your writing compared to "roadkill" and "effluence" and "flatulence" and "cardboard" and "dried wallpaper" and...

If you want a constant state of support and praise, this is not the business to be in.

Joshua James said...

It does sound like the writer was busting your balls just a little bit, going out of his way to make you feel bad.

Stacie Penney said...

The information you've provided has strengthened my resolve simply because I know what I'm up against and can figure out how to work around it or twist it to my favor.

Anonymous said...

You all actually took that email seriously? LOL It read like a lot of the tongue-in-cheek comments to postings to topics like "20 reasons to quit" and the like.
The optimism and willful disbelief of market realiteis of some aspiring writers makes a hardcore lotto player look like a careful financial investor.

The sender may just creative, but I doubt someone celebrates the end of a publishing dream by acquiring a doomsday messenger's backlist and immersing oneself in Everquest LOL

Jeri said...

Joe, I don't think you're discouraging anyone who doesn't want to be discouraged. If anything, you're an example of how persistence and hard work pay off in the end.

You want discouraging? Here's a story. Years ago I attended a panel by a writer who led workshops for beginners. This author's basic message was: if you keep writing and keep submitting, eventually you'll get published. A rejection meant only one thing: that editor on that day didn't want it. Similar to your "A failed writer is one who gave up" (sorry, paraphrasing).

Turns out this person's real opinions (revealed in private) were the following: any work that gets rejected even once is probably crap, most unpublished writers are hopelessly untalented and will never get anywhere no matter how hard they work. (And if you do get published, don't bother promoting your first book, because it probably isn't any good.)

Hearing the true thoughts of someone I deeply admired made me feel betrayed and stupid. I probably still lug around scraps of that pessimism and cynicism.

But I didn't let it stop me. On the contrary, I was determined to prove them wrong, and I did.

I agree with everything lorra said to that e-mailer, and want to add this: Don't obsess over this one novel. Just finish it as best as you can and move on to the next one. If it sucks, so what? Think of it as a practice novel. Apply everything you learned to the writing of the next one. And good luck!

Bernita said...

Pardon me, even though it is all too true what Joe describes as the paucity of useful information BI (before internet) - and how the internet is wonderfully rich in resources now - it still strikes me as funny to see it expressed in terms similar to the bad old days when things were really tough and we walked three miles to school...

gugon said...

There's no question that this is a scary business to get into. For me the scariest part is the schmoozing and self-promotion (your post on Promotion scared me a little - although it was incredibly informative - thanks for that).

But scary or not, I think anyone interested in publication needs to understand that this is a business. The publishers need to make money or they go out of business. Too many unpublished writers have a highly romanticized view of the industry.

Scary or not - I wan't to know EVERYTHING. And published or not, I will NEVER stop writing - and I will NEVER stop trying, no matter what. Because once I stop, I'll be simply waiting to die.

Don't feel bad about that letter. One of two things will happen for that person: 1) He/she will burn his/her book, then after a month or two get over it and go back to writing - or 2) He/she will move on along some other path because he/she was never a writer at heart.

Joe - keep scaring me and I will keep coming back for more.

Unknown said...


If that's all it took to squash this WriterHopeful, then you've done a good deed.

It's hell out there. This is the same in all creative endeavors - the art world, acting, singing, dancing, writing for anything, tv and film... and the list goes on.

If hearing how hard it is destroys you, then you aren't meant for this, regardless of your talent level.

Talent may be 51% of what it takes, but drive, dedication and a gut of steel powers the other 49, no doubt.

JA Konrath said...

Scary or not - I wan't to know EVERYTHING. And published or not, I will NEVER stop writing - and I will NEVER stop trying, no matter what. Because once I stop, I'll be simply waiting to die.

That's exactly the same attitude I had. And look where it got me. :)

Jason Pinter said...

Methinks the letter in question was yanking your chain a bit...

Mark Terry said...

Remember the movie "Tootsie?"

"We don't want you because you're too short."

"I can be taller."

"You're too tall."

"I can be shorter."

"Ahem. We don't like YOU!"

As a writer, I can always at least console myself with: At least I'm not an actor!

Stacey Cochran said...

I think all this information is encouraging. Man, I started writing with the intent to publish in the early 1990s. That was a dark period, and the only connection to the outside world of editors and writers I had were the Brother WhisperPrint Word Processor stories I sent out via snail mail, and the form letter rejection slips I got.

Blogging has taught me that published authors aren't in on some super secret knowledge that the rest of us don't know. It makes the secret world of published authors more real, easy to understand, and as such, that much more able to attain.

Keep the blogging going.

We're all on different places along the learning-curve spectrum.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I can see how an e-mail like that would make you sick to your stomach at first. No one wants that kind of responsibility.

But I agree with these other people, Lorra & Gugon especially. Don't quit, keep informing yourself as much as possible, and did we mention don't quit?

One of the best lines I ever read--and that made me finally, fully commit to my writing career--wasn't about writing at all. It was in the book "Long Distance, A Year of Living Strenuously" by Bill McKibben. In it he talks about his decision to stop half-assing everything, and finally really try to be good at something (in this case, cross-country skiing).

Here's the line: "As for me, I'd examined my core . . . and found it to be much as I'd always known it: curious, eager, TEMPTED BY DEEP COMMITMENT BUT AFRAID OF THE EFFORT AND PAIN. The same on a ski trail and in front of a keyboard and on my knees in church. THREE-QUARTERS OF THE WAY THERE IN EVERYTHING I DID" (emphasis mine).

So I had to ask myself how much I was giving my writing career. And the best I could say was about 65%. So I started trying to up that percentage month after month. So much of it is attitude, rather than just effort.

As of last year I was at about 90%. And guess what? I just got a 2-book deal last month.

Joe, looks like you're running at about 110% most days. It's paid off, wouldn't you say?

Christine Fletcher said...

Like Claudia, I suspect "Future Fan" is having a bit of fun with you. If not, then ditto to what others have said--anyone ready to quit after learning some industry truths isn't in it for the long haul.

I'm a veterinarian, as well as a writer, and if I had a buck for everyone who ever told me, "I always wanted to be a veterinarian, I LOVE animals," I'd be rich enough to leave practice. (Mmmm...then I could write full-time...Stop dreaming, back to business. Ahem). Point being, most if not all of those people are simply attracted to the IDEA of being a veterinarian--an idea which, BTW, is invariably and wildly inaccurate. Same with writing--lots of people are attracted to the concept, and clueless about the realities.

If this person quits this easy, then you did him/her a favor. Not your responsibility, in any case.

Keep it comin', Joe.

Jason Pinter said...

Me still thinks the author is pulling your leg bigtime.


Buying all your books in exchange for the sage advice?

My sarcasm detector is going full blast...

moonhart said...

I think someone was laying on a little guilt on you, Joe.

I had a conversation with a fellow writer a few days ago. She had just gotten another rejection. Pretty good writer but, IMO she does only half the job. Yes, she writes but does not try to improve on her crafting weaknesses. Editors and agents point out the same things that I do when I am critiquing her. When I mentioned this, guess what? She doesn't want to hear it. Feels it should be good "enough." ROTFL!

She'll probably get more rejections if she doesn't start putting on her "reality" glasses. Writing is a brutal biz. So, if this is REALLY what you want, you had better be prepared because there is no magic handshake.

And even if you do everything "right" there's still no guarantee.

So basically, we're crazy. Davids all, equipped with a slingshot of ideas and some smooth stone stories with which to slay the Goliath called "Publishing."

And we aren't sure about God being on our side, either.



Anonymous said...

Yes, this guy should burn his book. And then begin writing his next one.

My first book's crap and deserves burning too, but hell, I've learned a lot.

Also, maybe he's trying to write fiction when he should pursue non-fiction or vice versa - or vice versa genre.

One of the big mistakes people make when considering anything, is looking at the end picture. "My God! I can't be a pro-footballer - those guys are so big and strong. I'm just some weedy little kid." Guess what? They all started that way.

My advice to Mr Farenheit 451, would be to stop thinking so far ahead of himself.

Allison Brennan said...

Joe, it's a tough business but for those of us who love to write, we're willing to walk on the hot coals barefoot.

I do think that some ignorance is helpful. If I knew a lot of what I know now, I might have done something drastic like your future fan. At the same time, it's important to educate ourselves about the industry so we can know what's average, what we can expect, and strive for more.

EVERYONE has different experiences in this business. EVERYONE has different expectations.

But the only way to fail is to not even try.

Sandra Ruttan said...

sue hit on one of my initial thoughts, right off.

If you're really serious about this, nothing will put you off. You might go through periods of discouragement, but you'll persevere because you come back to what you love to do.

Joe, you aren't scary. But a lot of people think that they just have to write a book and sell it, end of story. I thought that until a few years ago too. I knew nothing about the business side of the equation.

Simply put, saying you'll write but not promote is like saying you want to be a rock star and make records, but not play any live shows. Live is where you gain exposure, win an audience and then start selling. I have a distant cousin who's in the country music bus, and those live performances are a big part of paying your dues.

You just keep telling people about your experience. Okay, we don't always agree, and I still mutter things about you being an anti-SASE-freak occasionally, but only to the kittens, and you know what? It doesn't matter if we don't see eye to eye on everything. That's part of what makes you you and everyone else normal. Or not. But you're giving us all the benefit of your experience, and we'll apply some of it or all of it or adapt it to work for us, and for that, we all owe you thanks.

Don't think of one odd email. Think of those dozens of monthly emails that tell you how much you've helped.

Jessica Johannesen said...

I've read your tips pages, and I regularly read your blog. I've seen the statistics against getting published and against actually making enough money to be a full time writer.

But you know what? I don't care, not one single iota. None of it is stopping me from writing every day, or killing my full time writing dreams. Actually knowing the truth of how it is helps me work harder in creating better work as well as helping me start building a thick skin now.

Keep telling the truth and don't worry about the people who don't like it. If the truth scares someone away it gives them the opportunity to find a dream they can achieve.

Anonymous said...

I remember feeling like that writer did in the beginning. I stopped going to writing events and subscribing to certain newsletters because I found that knowing about the real world of publishing discouraged me.

Once I got a few short stories published and gained confidence in my writing then I could deal with the reality and prepare myself for being a author.

This is a journey you have to undertake in baby steps. There's no quick jump to the top (well there are but they are few and far between and fraught with their own difficulties-Mehta Opal ring any bells?). First you need to learn the craft, then learn to apply it, learn about the industry, then apply that knowledge by submitting, learn to develop a thick skin and persistance through constant imersion in the hot pan of submission, and keep putting one word in front of another word and not stop.

So while I agree that the person who wrote the email is being a bit dramatic in saying you've killed their dream, they also need to take responsibility for themselves. If they can't deal with knowing about things then they need to protect themselves until they can.

Mark Pettus said...


I have to admit that I'm too busy most of the time to follow too closely while you lead. I'm less a constant-reader than a "Oh, look, Konrath wrote another book," kinda guy.

That said, I also need to admit that your words are often discouraging - in tone. You've never actually discouraged me (I'm so arrogant I assume my success is guaranteed. All I need do is keep writing and submitting until I find an agent and publisher smart enough to snatch me up), but I know you've discouraged my fellow neo-novelists.

Since we know you're the consummate marketer, I doubt this guy is going to discourage you - not after he bought your books.

I think you should supplement your do-it-yourself chapbooks with some of those rubber bracelets that you give away only at writer's conferences - WWJAD - What Would J.A. Do?

Stay Strong

Anonymous said...

I got the ultimate discouraging word from a fellow critique group member (a well-published writer whom I respected). I had published five books with legitimate New York publishers, and I thought I was fabulous, although I hadn't sold anything in a while. After submitting something I thought was so damn good, she turned to me and said, "What are you thinking?" Suddenly, it hit me. It was like a wide chasm broke right at my feet.

It took me a month to realize I couldn't stop writing, even though I'd vowed to quit, when I finally contacted her and asked her what she meant by that.

It jumpstarted the whole second part of my career. I hadn't sold anything original in eight years, and then I went back to the woodshed, said I'd become a much better writer, and I sold the book to the first editor I submittted it to. I got the agent I wanted on the same day.

This from someone who was a bottom-feeder and got paid a pittance, albeit from New York publishers.

Boy, am I glad she rang that warning bell, because otherwise, I might still be in that nether-country.

Jude Hardin said...

I think about quitting every day.

Who doesn't?

Let's be honest. The probability of actually making a living writing fiction is very slim. The odds are astronomical. Most of the unpubbed writers who comment on this blog and other blogs like this will never make it. Most of the published ones will never earn enough to feed their pets, much less their families.

The reason I think about quitting has nothing to do with the wisdom presented on the internet and elsewhere, though. The reason I think about quitting has everything to do with my own personal demons. Am I good enough?
Do I have what it takes to stick with it through the long haul? Can I face five hundred rejections and still keep trying? When I do get a publishing deal will I be able to suffer through bad reviews and poor sales and criticism from every angle? Will I be able to struggle once again when my publisher drops me?

The answer:


That's because I'm a writer. I deal with my demons, and routinely kick their boney little asses all the way back to Hell. Either you're a writer or you're not.

I suspect the author of the email sent to Joe is not. That's okay! There's no shame in quitting. Maybe you're suited better for something else.

Just don't try to make someone who IS a writer feel guilty about telling the truth. There lies the shame, my friend.

Flood said...

It's not just JA or EE or Miss Snark or any one one blog or info resource. It's a matter of putting the cart before the horse and discovering things that do not matter before your book is finished.

Yes, new writers should be armed with important info but we find ourselves taking time out of the writing day to see how things are in the big, bad world, and discover that not only do we have to FINISH THE BOOK, but then face a host of obstacles. If you are trying to find a way to describe movement in a difficult scene that you have been working on for three days, it's pretty easy to think about quitting. Or, that you were never a writer in the first place. I am surprised to learn that some people have such confidence in their goals, they never allowed self-doubt to creep in once or twice per ms. I wish I had that kind of complete trust in myself. It's not enough to write a fantastic book, or have a good agent or contract with a great publishing house. It's work and I am glad to know what's coming down the pike for me, but sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.

I hope the author of the letter will reconsider after a break, and stay away from helpful sites about publishing until he is ready to publish.

Jude Hardin said...

Good advice, flood. Sometimes it's hard to stay focused with so many distractions at our fingertips. YES! Finish the book and then worry about the publishing part.

moonhart said...


Jude is my new hero. I am printing out your response for my "Wall of Inspiration."



Reenie said...

I agree with Claudia & Jason. This person writes good fiction and will go far.

JA Konrath said...

It shouldn't be eye-opening when I say: All writers doubt themselves. Even the pros. Even the bestsellers.

While I'm writing, I always have a voice in the back of my head that is saying, "This sucks." That never changes, no matter how much you've written, or how much you've published.

Mindy Tarquini said...


I think this emailer is pulling your leg.

And on the dreamcrushing thing?

I love ya, Joe. I mean you're one of my very special 15 or so friends, some of whom I'd never heard of before a week ago on MySpace. And I know you feel the same about me because I'm one of the 75 people you'd be will to take a bullet for...

Sorry - this was going somewhere, but it's early and it got away from me. Oh yeah, the dream crushing thing.

I love ya, Joe, but you just ain't big enough to crush people's dream. Try us again next year.

Anonymous said...

1. You can't crush another's dreams. I just don't think it can be done. A true dream is something someone will do no matter what.

2. Yes, the business end of writing can be pretty scary to some of us. I'm one of those. Introverted, hate to be the center of attention, run the other way as fast as I can from anything that even smells of business or accounting. And sales? Forget it!

3. Being a good writer isn't enough to keep anyone in this business. You have to do it for love. Otherwise it's not going to take you where you want to go. Any job done just for a paycheck, or just because you happen to be good at it, is like hitting yourself with a hammer. It only feels good when you stop. When you love something, you keep doing it even if it makes you no money, even if you're crappy at it, even if your favorite show is on TV, even if your spouse thinks you're nuts.

So maybe he didn't really love writing anyway, and your website gave him the perfect excuse to stop.

I really don't think learning about the business end of things is going to stop someone from writing who loves it. I've been at this for years and years, haven't even broken even, and still do it.

Then again, maybe I'm seriously disturbed.

Aimlesswriter said...

This guy evidently didn't read everything you wrote about writers. Like What do you call a writer that never gives up? Published!
I find you inspiring. which is why I keep track of what you do and when the next book is due out. AND why I recomend you site to all my writer friends.
Keep doing what you're doing and if this guy was going to burn his book he's not really a writer. Books are our babies. I have books on the shelf I never plan on doing anything with, but they're there; my babies. How many of your books have you burned?

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation, I had the opposite reaction to your web site. After reading it, I was more encouraged than ever to 'stay the course', believe in myself and commit to the long haul. Your advice for writers matches all my experience in other walks of life...for me writing is a career for the second half of my life and I hope to apply all the learnings from my first career to the second one. Thanks for the encouragement you provide to 'newbies' like me.