Persist or Quit: Writing's Rocky Road

If you're trying to break into this writing biz, how long should you persist? Is there a time when you should just throw in the towel? These are legitimate questions and are of concern to those who have been trying year after year to get a book contract. I was talking to a friend the other day. This matter was the subtext of our conversation.

I have several friends who are unpublished. Some are new to the game. Others have been trying for many years to make the leap from aspiring to published. In hopes that my two cents might help, here are a few thoughts on the subject of tilting at windmills.

If you've been writing, completing manuscripts, and submitting, then you are at one of two stages in your writing: elementary is getting form rejections and intermediate is getting actual letters telling you why your work is rejected.

If you're at the elementary stage, then try to improve and keep writing if you haven't mastered your craft. Now, if it's been a number of years that you've been submitting, and you're still not getting personal rejection letters, then you need to take a cold, hard look at your work because something just isn't working.

If you can't be objective, find someone who knows good writing, preferably a published author. Don't ask your mom, dad, spouse, sibling, or best friend unless one of those is an accomplished writer. Hopefully, you know a published author well enough who might help you out.

Try not to pay for this critique unless the person has a good reputation as a freelance editor with great credentials from successful writers. Beware the editing services that feed on the dreams of the unpublished!

Ask your chosen reader to give you an HONEST assessment of your work. Within the first 10 pages or less, he or she should be able to give you an objective opinion as to your ability as a story teller and as to your mastery of narrative elements.

Growth Hurts
Now, you have to be willing to have your feelings hurt. If all you want is a pat on the head and praise for your prose, then you are cheating yourself of the chance to grow as a writer. Honesty, even when couched in the most diplomatic terms, can hurt. But only honesty will help you grow.

If you want to be a writer, you MUST grow a thick skin because even after you get published, you're going to get your feelings hurt by readers, critics, and others who dump on your work. It's a fact of life so learn to separate WHO you are with WHAT you do. You are a wonderful, intelligent, charming person. What you do is write. The two should be separate not joined in your head.

If you get objective honest feedback that says you've got something there, but you need to learn how to present it better, then learn. If that hurts too much or if you don't want to take the time to learn, then move on to something else because this business probably isn't for you. It's a tough business, and you have to be willing to write, rewrite, shelve a manuscript, start a new one, again and again.

If you are at the intermediate stage, getting personal feedback from editors and agents, but you're still getting rejections then here are some ideas for you if you're getting worn down by the process.

If you've written 10 manuscripts and submitted them all to every possible editor or agent and they've all been rejected with personal letters, do this:

1. Photocopy all the rejection letters and get a bunch of colored highlighters.

2. Analyze every letter. If each person made a negative comment about your story line, highlight that with the color of your choice. If they commented in a bad way about your use of viewpoint, highlight that. If they discussed the fact that nothing set your manuscript above the other few thousand vampire manuscripts they have, highlight that. Also highlight the positive comments, trying to color coordinate the like comments. Do the same with any elements in common in all the letters.

3. Lay the letters all out in a row on the floor. Stand back and look at them. Does one color, indicating a specific area, predominate? Are all the positive comments about your polished prose? Are all the negative comments about your work being derivative and not standing out? Look for common denominators.

4. Write yourself a report about what you discover. What should you definitely keep or emphasize in your next work? What should you improve?

5. Write an action plan on how you're going to improve the next manuscript. What are you going to do different? This is crucial because if you keep doing the same old thing, you'll get the same old results. You have to do something different. Is it improve your technique? Is it come up with a more exciting concept? Is it jump on a trend asap and get a manuscript finished before the industry is deluged with the same?

Then realistically ask yourself if all those manuscripts stand a chance of being published. Have they been submitted everywhere possible? Does the oldest manuscript stand up to scrutiny given that your skills have improved from that first effort? Do you believe in the characters or story enough to set it aside and work on it at some future point after you've been published? Or are you just tired of all of them. Be honest.

After making that brutal assessment of your inventory, choose a project to work on NOW. Preferably a new story. If you choose to rewrite, then know what you need to do to get a different answer the next time you submit it.

If it's a new story completely, then what will you do differently this time around? Different genre? Different voice of first person rather than third? What will make this manuscript your breakout manuscript? You need to answer those questions.

You have to keep your finger on the pulse of the market. See what's being published today as well as what authors are selling that won't be out for another year or more. Study the market. Find out what editors want then discover what in that appeals to you. See if you can make a marriage between what they want to publish and what you want to write. Then get it written and sent to them before they don't want it any more.

Pour your imagination, energy, and time into your new project. Get it finished as quickly as possible. Draw up an agent list with your A, B, and C choices. Check all them out. When you complete the manuscript, let it set so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Then proofread and edit as needed. Start sending it out.

Once you start submitting, celebrate your victory i.e. a completed, submitted manuscript. Then get started on the next one before too much time has elapsed. It's good practice for when you're a paid professional and have to turn around manuscripts quickly amidst juggling other tasks like copy edits, promotion, developing proposals for your option book, and other things you don't even know about yet as well as life and all that goes with having one.

Remember, if you're getting personal rejections and have come close many times to getting that contract, then you're teetering on the edge of something momentous. Sometimes, you just have to look inside your heart and determine if you really and truly want this. Then stay the course or move on to something else.

I knew a cop once who wrote a true crime book about something he was involved in. He sent it to 71 publishers and was rejected each time. He believed in himself and the story he wrote, so he sent it to number 72. It was accepted and published.

Pop Quiz, Hot Shot
Is there anything else you'd rather do with the time you spend writing? If so, then just lay the pen down and move on to something that pleases you more, excites you more, or is more fun. Then pat yourself on the back because you've found out something valuable before you wasted more time.


1. Do you love writing?

2. Do you believe in yourself the way the cop believed?

3. Do you constantly try to improve by studying writing books, analyzing published books, practicing your craft, and you like doing all that?

If your answers are yes, keep writing. Every no is a down payment on that yes for which you're waiting.

I totally believe that God doesn't give you the desire to do something without giving you the means to do it. It's we poor humans who let other things come between us and what we want. So don't make excuses, make commitments, make time for your dreams. You're really worth it.

Believe. Persist.

Hang tough, baby!

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