The Blog

All Posts in Category: Rejection

When to Listen to Your Inner Critic

I was thinking about my inner critic in light of the fact that I am nearly finished with a novel I have been in process with for about a year. So you know what that means: rejections up ahead! Of course, it is entirely possible for me to avoid the rejections by continuing to work on the novel. A person can work on a novel indefinitely and feel like she is making progress when really she is just stalling.

So. Over the weekend, I made what I thought would be the final pass on the novel. I knew I needed a more satisfying ending, and I worked one out, and I knew I needed to fix the first chapter, and I fixed it, and then I printed the complete manuscript (I like to get the feel for a novel on the page, not just the computer screen) and when I re-read it, I discovered that the whole thing sucked from beginning to end.

Now, you may wonder why I hadn’t noticed this before. After all, I have been working on the novel for a year and I’ve been publishing for more than fifteen years, and you’d think a professional would notice a thing like that. You may also wonder if I was deeply alarmed by this diagnosis. I can assure you I was not. That is because I Have Been Here Before. And in fact, “OMG! This novel SUCKS EGGS!” seems to be an inevitable part of the process for me.

I hope it is not for you, but from my admittedly nonscientific survey of writer friends, it is likely that, if you are a writer, you suffer from this malady yourself, at least now and again.

Here is what I do. I read the novel with pen in hand, taking copious notes. This is a discouraging process, because my inner critic cannot help jeering at me (“You mean you did not NOTICE that you used the SAME ridiculous plot contrivance TWICE in one novel when ONCE would have been too much?”) but I let my inner critic have her say. I don’t care how savage she gets. I note it all down, and then I cry quietly into my pillow for a while.

After that, I put my notes away and I don’t look at the novel for at least two weeks. I don’t try to fix anything that’s wrong with it. Then, when I am feeling more sane, I get out the novel and the notes, and I make the revisions the book really needs. Then I’m done. I mean really done, with just one more read-through for typos before I lay in chocolate and wine to get through the rejection process.

How do I know that? How do I know that *this* round of revisions is the last? I know because of the viciousness of my inner critic, and the hopelessness with which I view the manuscript. Earlier in the process, when I am not nearly done, I feel a lot more optimistic. (“Oh, there’s a plot hole! I can fix that in a jiffy! Who gives a rat’s ass about this character? Well, I’ll just add a few charming foibles and we’ll be all set.”)

I know this about myself and the process because I have been through the process before and sometimes I have come up short—I stopped too soon. Other times I did not, and someone sent me a contract and a check. But if I don’t eventually stop, I can’t get that contract and that check. So the key is to reach the point of existential despair, and then I know I’m set.

Your process may vary.

When Shortcuts Are Short Circuits

In my many years as a book author and freelancer, I have met hundreds of writers, professionals and wannabes, and it has struck me that we tend to do one of these two things, neither of which is in our best interest:

  1. We don’t put our work out into the world. We are waiting for some future moment when all will be perfect with the work and ourselves. That time will never come, but knowing that doesn’t stop us from waiting.
  2. We put our work out into the world before it’s ready. By this I mean taking shortcuts to get our work out into the world. Thinking, “This is wonderful and ready!” and hitting send and then finding out that no one agrees with you is one thing. Thinking, “Eh, close enough” and hitting send is another.

I see this type of thing happening a lot when people decide to self-publish. It’s not that I don’t completely understand the whole “I can avoid rejection this way” mindset, or that I don’t understand that it may be the only way a good book will actually see the light of day, or any of a
hundred reasons why people make this choice. I don’t quibble with those reasons.

My argument is that taking a shortcut because otherwise you will have to spend time getting better at the work does you no good in the long run.  If your goal is to just have 70,000 words with your name out there in the world, then by all means, shortcuts are a fine way to get there. If you are trying to be a good writer, or a good anything, then you need to be aware of the trap of the shortcut.

It isn’t only in self-publishing versus traditional publishing where I see this mistake. I cannot count the number of people who are dissatisfied with their current agents (and for very good
reasons, not just the usual angst over the advance should have been huger) but who don’t do anything about it because then they would have to find another agent. And not only would that mean time spend trying to find one, but maybe they would have to step up their work a notch to catch someone’s eye. It’s easier to stick with the status quo.

Or nonfiction writers who think hiring a publicist will get them out of the work of building a platform and doing publicity (I think publicists are great, but hiring one doesn’t mean your work
as an author is done).

I struggle with this myself, a lot more than I would like to admit. In the end, I have learned to ask myself the key question: “Am I considering this because it’s easy or because it’s the right thing for my work?”

Avoiding Creative Burnout

I recently got a note from a writer saying she felt creatively drained.  She said, “My book is good.  How can I convince others?”

Reading between the lines, I figured she’d written a book she felt was excellent but agents/editors were rejecting it, and that was making her feel a lot like not writing any more books, and also that she wished she could figure out how to get an agent’s (or publisher’s) attention.

I will be the first to admit that beating your head against a wall is way more fun than querying agents and editors, and that the more rejections you get, the harder it can be to feel like doing it all over again.  I also know that making creativity your work — the thing that pays the bills — is a
good way to want to shovel ditches for a living.

Basically, we have two connected questions: “How can I succeed in the commercial arena of publishing?” and “How can I, at the same time, renew and feed my creative energies?”

You really do have to separate the act of creation from the act of publishing.  The act of creation is something to be nurtured and protected, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.  The act of publishing is a business transaction, period.  They are two very different creatures, although of course we’re bound to conflate them, being human and wanting to see our hard work rewarded.

Protecting your creativity — renewing it, feeding it, keeping it from shutting down when you get five more rejection letters this week — requires a couple of important habits:

  1. Protect the time.  Even if you’re just drawing doodles on a sketchpad, keep your creative time free from other encumbrances.  My first two hours of every day are for The Work, even though sometimes they actually consist of talking to friends at the coffee shop.
  2. Remember that sheer financial terror impedes creativity.  Putting the entire burden of your financial health on the capricious whims of the publishing industry requires nerves of steel. Have different work to serve different purposes.  It’s not selling out: you’re buying the time to do The Work.
  3. The Work is sufficient in and of itself.  Yes, it’s nice to be recognized for your talent, but it’s not required.  There are ways to share your work beyond traditional publishing, if it comes to that.
  4. Keep more than one project going.  Have new work you’re conceptualizing while you edit the old work and send out the older.  Keep your focus on your work and not on the publishing business.

To the in some ways more difficult question of succeeding in commercial publishing:

  1. Create a network.  The hardest thing in writing is feeling like you’re talking to yourself.  Have other writers, readers, colleagues, who can give feedback and offer resources.
  2. Learn to sell your book.  It’s easier to write a blurb about someone else’s book.  So either pretend you’re writing your query about someone else’s book or trade with a friend: write a query for someone else’s book and have them write one for yours.  See if that helps you nail your query.
  3. Don’t invest everything in one project.  Especially these days.  Times are tough in publishing. You can love your book but you also need to Let. It. Go.  Maybe it will be published, maybe it won’t.  Like a child, you do your best by it but beyond that, you don’t have a lot of say in how it turns out. Get to work on the next book.
  4. Invest in getting better.  Yes, this book is good.  Focus on how the next one is going to be better.  Read, attend conferences, join writers’ groups. Immerse yourself in understanding the craft and the publishing process.  Experiment.  Fail.  Fail a lot.  Learn something. Fail some more.  Write the book no one can turn down (then sell the secret for one million dollars).  That’ll keep you too busy to focus on the inadequacies of the agents and editors who are rejecting your book.
  5. Recognize what you can control and what you can’t.  Writing the best book you can?  Completely under your control.  Convincing other people it’s the cat’s meow?  Not so
    much.

What to Do About "No"

An online writers’ group I belong to recently had a discussion about saying no — how to do it, how to mean it, how to deal with people who try to negotiate after you’ve already said no, and so on.

That got me thinking about the other side of the coin — when people say no to us, or at least say no to our queries and proposals and manuscripts.  There’s a right way to deal with those, too, and keeping in mind the process that goes through your mind when you say no helps ease the sting.

For example, when someone asks me to help with a school fundraiser, I may very well see the value of it, but simply not have the time to participate.  I have other priorities that take precedence.  Turn this around: when someone says no to my idea, it’s not always because my idea sucks or because I do, but rather that the agent already has a house full of clients or the editor already has something similiar in the lineup.

In other words, it isn’t about me personally.  When I say no to someone, I don’t want them to argue with me about it or find reasons to overcome my objections, unless I’m clearly inviting them to do so.  “No, I can’t help at the fundraiser” is different from “I’d like to help at the fundraiser, but it’s being held on a day I’m out of town.”

The first means I’m not able to help; the second means I may be willing to do something as long as you don’t expect me to show up on the day of the event. In the same way, “No, I’m afraid I can’t take you on as a client” is different from “I really like this book idea, but I don’t think it can reach a big enough audience as you currently envision it.”

Understanding how to differentiate between these kinds of responses is crucial for writers.  One is an opportunity to show your creativity and ability to respond positively to criticism; the other is an opportunity to move along.

One of the most important things I learned to do as a writer was to make a plan before I ever started submitting a project.  So if I was going to submit a manuscript to agents, I didn’t just pick the top three or four I really wanted to work with.  I researched fifty or seventy-five, then sent letters to my top ten.  As soon as I got a rejection from one, I sent the pitch to another (always pausing to ask myself if the pitch needed to be reworked).

The other thing I learned to do was detach from outcomes.  All I could control was the writing and submitting part of the process.  Once I had the submission plan in place for a particular project, I moved along to the next project.

Moving along to the next project is the most important part of dealing with rejection.  I know some people will say, “But you have to be committed to this project!  You have to do everything you can for this project!”  And while that’s true to some extent, the six months it takes between starting to pitch a project and finding a home for it cannot be solely devoted to that project, unless that project is your life goal.

I don’t let any one project be my life goal.  My life goal — to make my living as a writer until they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead hands — requires that I move along until I find the project that hits the sweetspot: I love it, an editor loves it, and an audience loves it.  And sometimes it takes a lot of rejection to get there.