Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Writing anything requires a certain amount of investment from a writer. Time, naturally. But a story also contains little bits of who were are. Writing a book is a substantial commitment, professionally, and often emotionally.

When the story is complete, the investment remains. We want it to be read. To succeed. To endure.

But sometimes our best efforts don't sell. Sometimes it's the writing. Sometimes it's the market. Sometimes it's some weird combination of circumstances that lead to rejection. (In fairness, weird combinations of circumstances often lead to acceptance as well.)

Which brings us to the point of this blog entry: When do we give up on something we've written?

That's a tough question. Is it time to abandon a piece after ten rejections? Or a hundred rejections? Six months? Three years? Does the time we spent writing it play a part in this decision? Does how much we personally like the story factor in?

The point is, we eventually need to give up. We need to stop dwelling on what didn't sell, and focus on something new that might sell.

Almost every writer I know has a shelf novel. Almost all of them have short stories that never say print. In some cases the writers admit this is a good thing. Work that doesn't get published often has specific reasons it wasn't published.

But sometimes we can't point to any particular reason. Sometimes we're 100% certain that a particular piece is gold, and can't understand why it didn't sell.

While rejection is tough, clinging to something because you're emotionally invested in it isn't a smart career move. It's better to move on to something new. Even if you're sure it's good.

So what do you do next? Assuming you've sent you book/story to everyone, reworked it several times, and still struck out, what your next course of action?

1. Grieve. Depression is an obvious response to rejection. You're allowed to wallow in it, as long as the wallowing doesn't last for more than a day or two. If it lasts more than a week, then you probably really are the untalented whiny loser you think you are, and should chose another profession.

Winners don't mope. Winners chalk it up to experience and move on.

2. Put it away. Distance yourself from the project by getting it off your desk, computer, and out of sight. Stick it in a drawer and promise you won't take it out for at least a month. Then you can peek at it again with fresh eyes, and maybe you'll gain a new perspective on it. Maybe it isn't as good as you thought. And if it is, well, rejection is part of this profession. Get used to it.

3. Write. Writers write. You're a writer. So write something else.

4. Post it. We write because we want to be read. If you have a story or book that you can't forget about, no matter how hard you try, make it available for free on your website. Downloads, email installments, audio podcasts, newsgroups and message boards---the whole World Wide Web is waiting to read you.

That's pretty much a lie. Very few people on the Web will actually care about the stories you post. But it can't hurt, and maybe you'll get a few encouraging emails. There's also the small possibility you will get a lot of reads. Stranger things have happened. At the very least, you're getting more reads than if the story was in a drawer.

5. Publish it yourself. By which I mean DO NOT PUBLISH IT YOURSELF. If you really have to, visit www.lulu.com and use them. Don't get an ISBN. Don't try to list it on Amazon or get brick and mortar stores to carry it. Print up some copies for friends and family and leave it at that.

I've written scads about the perils of self-pubbing and POD, and I say DON'T DO IT. REALLY. I'M SERIOUS. THESE CAPITAL LETTERS SHOW YOU HOW SERIOUS I AM.

6. Network. The conferences, book fairs, and conventions you go to are great places to meet other writers and gossip about who is sleeping with whom and who just lost their agent and who is drinking too much.

They're also great places to find out who is editing which upcoming anthology. I've had several rejected tales that were magically resurrected because a peer contacted me, asking to submit something. Often they didn't ask. Often I asked them, after buying them a beer.

Having a few unpubbed stories in a folder isn't always a bad thing. When the right place meets the right time, you can pull them out. But this involves keeping an ear to the ground, and staying active in the community.

7. Read. Want to know what's selling? Buy and read what's being published, and you'll know what editors are looking for.

That doesn't mean jumping on the latest trend and writing a carbon copy--though a lot of writers aping The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter did okay with that. It actually means knowing what types of stories websites, periodicals, and publishers, are looking for.

Books and stories are bought by editors. Editors are people, with tastes. Appeal to their tastes.

8. Get over it. Yes, you spent a lot of time putting those words on the page, and they're dear to you. But put it in perspective. They're only words on a page. Even if those words did sell, you'd still have to move on and write something new.

Dwelling on past work, whether it was published or not, won't do anything for your future. I know too many writers who have been tinkering with a story, book, or manuscript for much longer than they've needed to. A better scenario is to abandon that albatross and begin a new project.

Conclusion. The publishing world, much like life, often isn't fun, fair, or easy. Don't blame the industry. That's just how it works. If you want to blame someone, look in the mirror. You're the one who chose this. If you're miserable, it's your own fault.

Also, if anyone reading this is editing an anthology, I'm pretty sure I've got something uniquely suited for it. Send me an email, and I can get it to you right away...


Anonymous said...

And some of us don't even make the beginning investment without considering the end first.

Self-publishing is one of those investments -- though I wouldn't do POD either. Of course, you're talking "novel" and I'm talking "non-fiction", which seems to change the investment equation.


PS: If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be on MySpace, which has turned into a great investment of time.

Lisa Abeyta said...

I had some very good advice from an agent who asked for a read of my first full manuscript:

Your writing is good, you have a great voice, but this - this should not be your first novel. You only have one chance to be a virgin novelist, and you don't want to blow it with a book that isn't the best one for the market that you can write.

That book is now sitting on a shelf. Maybe someday I'll dust it off, but probably not. I'd rather spend the time on something that has a possibility of getting knocked out of the park. (Will that make me a knocked-up novelist?)

Gayle Carline said...

Good post, Joe. It can be hard to cut and run.

Before I wrote my mystery, I wrote a brilliant piece of crap. It's got colorful characters, great dialog, but it doesn't go anywhere or do anything. I can't even pitch it because I don't know what it's about - and I wrote it! I re-worked it until it was as flat and dense as over-kneaded dough. There was a moment when I knew I had a POC and panicked, because it felt like that was the only story I had in me to tell.

Then, I began to think about severed hands and a 50-yr old P.I. named Peri Menopause, who solves every case by crying, eating chocolate and bitch-slapping everyone until someone confesses. A new book was written and sold to Echelon Press (okay, I changed her name to Minneopa).

Now I consider the old story my practice book. As a columnist who tells an entire story in 600 words, it taught me that I could still get from Point A to Point B in 90,000 words. It also taught me why I needed to listen to all the experts.

I may or may not get it out again. I figure, if nothing else, I'll just use it for parts.

*Akilah Sakai* said...

Dammit Joe!! Your advice is golden. I'm a new follower of your blog and I'm happy to have found you. Sheesh! I've got a lot to think about tonight after this read...

Anonymous said...

Lisa has a great point, and I've often considered that when thinking about my as-yet-unpublished novel. I know that in some ways it could be shite. So I've done a two-pronged shelve it and keep writing attack. Maybe this new book I'm writing will be the one to get published, stronger and better because of the lessons learned writing the first :)

Jude Hardin said...

This is some of the best advice for writers I've ever seen. Great post.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Tough love for the whiners who need it, comedy for those of us that don't.

And now that you mention it, I do remember a story or two that I had that would have been perfect for THESE GUNS FOR HIRE. Next time you get around Raleigh, let me know and I'll buy you a drink.

Or eight.

Barbara Martin said...

Thanks for the great advice from someone who's been there.

Anonymous said...

It's this kind of hardball advice that made the "Newbie's Guide" such an enjoyable read, and helped get me out of a lengthy period of innactivity.

In early September I went back and added up every word of everything I'd written since I first started being "serious" about writting in 1992.

It amounted to over 770,000 words of material, and only about 35,000 of that ever saw the light of day, and then only in tiny, unpaid formats: a story taken by a college yearly, and my 12-episode community radio serial.

I suppose I could have gotten depressed over that figure. Wow, 770K and no pro sales. I must totally suck!

But that's not the attitude I took, because I've always heard it said you need at least 1M words under the bridge before you actually start approaching your "good" stuff, and so I looked at that number and said, "Cool, I only have 250K left to go! Better get cracking!"

I've begun getting short material back out to the markets, and make sure I've got a story in for every quarter of Writer's of the Future. (I enjoy and write SF mostly) The feedback I am getting from editors tells me I've come a long way since the first stories; and when I read those first stories I can tell, too.

Maybe it's just a matter of growing up? I was all of 18 years old when I did the radio serial. And knew NOTHING about ANYTHING except taking a shit, as Eddie Murphy once said.

Well, I'll be 35 in April. In the last 17 years I've done and seen quite a bit. Marriage. Parenthood. Military. Working my way up the corporate ladder sans college degree.

I like to think that 80% of my problem when I was young, was that I was young. Some writers might be able to extrapolate believable, engaging fiction at that early age. I obviously was not ready.

Am I "ready" now? We'll see. I've set some goals for the last four months of 2008 and so far I have been keeping them. The rest is up to the editors, and fate, I suppose. And for next year, I'll make some new goals, and work on those too.

Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is my favorite pro sports coach of all time. My favorite phrase he always uses, when discussing bad games or players who get into bad funks, is, "Play forward."

I like to think I've learned enough about doing this to be able to "play forward" and I am always encouraging younger or less experienced novices like me, to abandon the endless re-writing, the eternal crit grouping, the angst-filled revisions. Slam that manuscript into the OUT box at the post office, and move on to something new! You did your best, now take what you learned and get cracking on the next piece.

Because the best one is always the next one, as actor Geoffrey Lewis once said.

And I don't want other people making the same mistakes I made, and wasting as much time I have wasted not producing new stuff while agonizing over the old stuff.

Again, thanks for the wonderfully hardball words, Joe.

Anonymous said...

I think the writing process would make a lot more sense to people if they turned off the computer for a while and look music lessons instead.

As anyone who has undertaken the study of a musical instrument knows, the first piece you learn is not something you'll want to perform and record. Generally speaking, the first piece a piano student tackles is not a Rachmaninoff prelude. First, you need to study and practice, develop skills, listen to good music that's well played so that you can develop an ear and a musical vocabulary.

Beginning musicians do not, as a rule, start making the rounds of concert agents trying to sell the IDEA for program of music they haven't yet learned, and have no idea whether or not they could actually play.

They don't email professional musicians, attach audio files of the first 16 measures of a piece (the only 16 measures they've practiced, and then only in a desultory fashion), and say, "Can you listen to this and tell me where I can record this concerto and how much I can expect to make from CD sales? Because I don't want to waste the time actually learning the music if my investment isn't going to pay off."

Pretty silly, right? And yet beginning writers do this sort of thing with astonishing frequency.

The most head-shaking example came shortly after I wrote my first Star Wars novel and several related short stories. One young man emailed me because he wanted to do likewise. He proposed writing 2 pages of a story, which he would send to me to vet. If I was pretty sure the resulting story would be published, I was to send the sample on to George Lucas (yeah, as if THAT number is in my rolladex...) and if HE agreed that this story would be published, then and only then would it be worth this young man's time to write the story. His first story, I might add.

I'm curious: Why is it that so many people regard unpublished first, second and third efforts as "failures?" The same people would probably concede that you can't learn to paint unless you pick up a brush, you can't learn to play an instrument unless you practice, and the first pie you bake is unlikely to win a blue ribbon at the county fair. Why do we accept the notion that good pastry takes practice, but whine because we can't publish the first words we jot down on paper/screen? Any every set of words thereafter? I started baking when I had to stand on a stool to reach the kitchen counter and I've gotten pretty good at it, but every now and then something just doesn't come out right. There's only so much tinkering you can do before you chuck it and start over. This is simple common sense. Writing is an art and a craft, just like any other. The same rules apply.



Anonymous said...

Like your last, this is very pithy post, Joe, and something which I asked several writers when I was first putting pen to paper. I received very little in the way of useful advice and this is the first article or post I've seen to actually addresses what can be a major stumbling block for new writers. Good question, great answer!

Jim said...

One thing I would add is to not give up on a WIP until it is finished, because it's impossible to know if a book is going to work or not until it's completely finished and the ending is written. I almost quit on one of my books midway, didn't, and then received lots of emails that it was my best one yet. Sometimes facing a difficult point halfway through makes you become more creative, which then results in a better work.

After the first draft is finished, get some honest feedback, and then trash what doesn't work. Be brutal. Anyway, I'm straying.

Anonymous said...

I'll out myself: I am the worst when it comes to finishing novels! I've started (and quit on) like five of them in the last 16 years.

My last novel project was going so well, but I hit 100,000 words and realized I was not even halfway to the end, and I went back and started re-writing and re-writing and, well, I ran out of gas and got sick of the story and bailed. Again.

That was about 6 years ago. And I swore I'd not tackle another novel project until I figured out what I kept doing wrong.

I think I have the biggest issue solved. I try to include too many characters and pretty soon I have too many plotlines to follow.

Many of my favorite novels tend to be those sprawling, super-thick millieu tales where the author seems to dive into the heads of thirty or more people, through countless chapters of weaving plotlines that somehow resolve themselves in the wrap-up.

Maybe some day I will be able to write one of those, but for my new project I am scheming I am determined to stick with a confined scope and a confined number of people, so I can not only keep it short, but focus on making each of those people as interesting and believable as possible.

Erica Orloff said...

I have several "shelf" novels that I think are really just waiting for something the publishing industry thinks is "dead" right now, to suddenly be "hot" again in three years or whatever. This is a cyclical biz and if you're in it for long enough, you see it. I also have a half dozen unpublished AND unfinished bits that should simply remain so--ideas that ran out of gas. And I've got 15 published novels out there . . . so when it all adds up, it's a 50-50 thing in what I produce, and I've learned to do just as you suggest and gain some distance and even feel sad over the ones where the timing is wrong, but recognize that what's today's "chick lit" will be tomorrow's "comedic fiction" (or whatever it will be renamed). Timing is part of the game, pure and simple.

Miss Mahana said...

This is very tough advice to read, but beneficial. Especially to someone like me - Thank you.

T. M. Hunter said...

Before one decides to follow the advice of just posting it up on the internet to read, I'd recommend making sure to get it vetted by someone. Posting up unedited work could actually be more detrimental to your future career...

Stacey Cochran said...

After you've been at it fulltime for 10 or more years and publishers still show no interest in your work, I'd advocate taking a stand. Publish your work on your own, get 20-30,000 folks to listen to or read it, go to conventions and act like you're a professional, and help out aspiring writers.

Life is so short. And it's wholly possible that you could write 20-30 novels that no one will ever want to publish.

My point is to not let something beyond your power have power over you. Have fun, help others, and get your work out there to the public in whatever way you can.

Anonymous said...

If you've written 20-30 novels that nobody wants to publish, chances are that you're probably in the wrong business.

The desire to write is common, but the ability to do so successfully is much rarer.

There's no shame in recognizing that some of life's dreams will never be fulfilled.

Spy Scribbler said...

And there's no shame in writing 20-30 novels, and then writing 20-30 more, just because you like writing. Maybe it's the wrong business, but it might be the right hobby.

Kim Smith said...

Once I published it with Lulu just for my own eyes, not for the public, and held it in my hands and TRIED to read it, I KNEW why it would never have a reading public. I placed it lovingly on the shelf and said, "Well. Now we have THAT out of our system. let's go write."

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever toyed with the idea of reading their rejected novels/stories at a jail, nursing home or a homeless shelter? Captive audience with a desperate need for stimulation and human contact . . . might help with the perspective issue.

Anonymous said...

good advice but why so passionate iagainst self-publishing?