REMINDER: To repeat an old cliche that has been repeated to me more times than I can count:
Your writing career is a MARATHON and not a sprint.
ENDURANCE IS EVERYTHING.
But let's unpack that. What do I mean by endurance?
Just pushing and pushing the same manuscript ad nauseum for years and years? Fixing and editing and revising the same old tired thing? How long should you keep revamping the same book? I think that it is sometimes advisable to shelve a manuscript and apply everything you've learned to something new.
Which doesn't mean you can't GO BACK and rewrite that shelved lovely with fresh eyes months or even years later.
Let me share my own sordid adventures in writing--all 13 years of them.
You may have deduced that I am a late starter. As in, I had an entire career as a graphic designer, professor, fine artist, and illustrator (not to mention mother of two) behind me. I had even already earned an MFA in painting. I'm not bragging--I'm just trying to explain the ridiculous and improbable nature of my quest...very much like Don Quixote's ambitions. I wasn't exactly looking for a new obsession. It just kind of found me.
In 2003, I'd wanted to illustrate a children's book--because--well--I am an illustrator/designer. That is what I was trained to do. It's how I saw myself. I'd always "dabbled" in writing and brushed it off as something that came "easily." I'd never struggled with writing in school, but had also never taken it too seriously. It was just a way to get a good grade and sometimes amuse myself with half-baked stories I'd never intended to finish.
That was until 2003. What was supposed to be a short little picture book, somehow morphed into five notebooks worth of scribbling. At first I thought I had a middle-grade book, until I realized it was really YA. That was after I learned what YA was!
Translation: I had NO CLUE what I was writing.
I did not understand genres, let alone the marketplace. All I knew was that this character (His name was Will, for the record, and I still have the drawings of his never to be published exploits) walked into my brain and stayed there.
FOR THE NEXT THREE YEARS.
Yes--three years. Two of which (2003, 2004) I did not admit to ANYONE, except a trusted friend and a family member. You'd think I was a spy or had an addiction. (wait--I did have an addiction).
However, what I DID have was INTENSE passion--but not much else!
I had no one to share my words with, no one to advise me on craft. Honestly, I had no idea there even was such a thing. (Shameful for a person with a graduate degree--but heck--I was an art major).
All I had a wild meandering plot, and a character I loved. Oh, what a glorious mess!
Finally, after two years of writing in secret, I managed to type the monstrosity into a word doc. At a friend's urging, I sent it to her acquaintance, a big shot at one of the BIG 5 (there were 6 then).
Do you want to know what said person had to say about my "masterpiece?"
That I should strongly consider taking a class, or maybe even quitting.
In a word--I SUCKED. I mean-- really, really sucked. And here I was thinking-- Damn! I labored two years over this thing--isn't that worth something?
It was worth something.
Yes. I learned loads.
But it wasn't worth a cent to a busy editor whose business it was to publish good books that people will want to buy and read.
So, there you have it.
2005--Year of reckoning, Pt. 1.
Quit? Or figure out what to do next.
I knew I wasn't quitting. Instead, I found an online critique group. And after about a year of ripping, tearing, learning about "show vs. tell", tension, dialogue tags, voice (all things I had NO IDEA existed despite getting a grade of 100 on my HS English exit exams, and "5" on my AP English exam and getting waived from Freshman English).
Well color me shocked.
I had NO IDEA there was so much to know about writing fiction. About genre!
The good news is that after seven months of getting my writing chewed and spit back out at me, I made major strides in my craft. So, by the end of 2006, I was ready to query the monster I had been nursing for over three years. (Okay--I will tell you the name--because this thing is dead and it is going to STAY DEAD. It was called TRUE VOICE).
Yeah--so what happened? Did I get an agent? Did I get a multi-zillion dollar book contract?
Did I expect that I would?
Um--yes--actually--I thought I had created a work of rare genius and that the whole world should be as thrilled about it as I was.
What really happened was this. I queried my favorite agent (after tons of flailing over query letters, etc.) and actually GOT MY FIRST PARTIAL REQUEST. I was over the moon!!
Fast forward...no I did not get an agent. And after I revised this monster umpteen times, and got about 60 rejections, I decided to put it to bed.
So in 2006, I wrote another ms. This time the voice was SPOT ON. It grabbed people. This was IT, everyone said. I finished this book within the year and was querying by the end of the year. And there we go again--LOADS of requests--including one from a HUGE agent. This agent said she LOVED my voice, but didn't think this premise would work--but please do send her my next ms.
Now, it's 2008. Book TWO (Freaks of Nature, may it rest in peace) is murdered and buried next to Book ONE. I finish my THIRD book (Afterside--may it also rest in peace) in maybe, eight months and send the ms to the BIG AGENT. BIG AGENT signs me in September 2008.
Sounds great, right?
In only five years, I have a BIG AGENT and I am on my way.
NOPE. But one thing I did learn was genre and voice. I learned enough about how to hook a reader. But guess what? I still could not plot my way out of a paper bag (sometimes I think I still can't!)
Fast forward to 2009. BIG AGENT never subs the book. Drops me after the financial freak out and market crash of 2008. Everyone panics and I believe I am finished. Washed up.
Yes--2009, year of reckoning Pt. 2.
The year I finally decided that I needed to write for my love of it--and nothing more.
So I worked and wrote and by the end of 2009, had completed Book 4. (I also attended loads of conferences and did whatever I possibly could to improve my craft. In other words I switched gears from getting PUBLISHED to being a BETTER WRITER.
Now it's 2010. I place runner-up for a WRITER'S DIGEST contest. Which wins me a partial request from another BIG AGENT (no disclosure, but this agent--who did not become my agent, has become a friend.). That agen (who is a terrific agent should you be so lucky to have her), helped me with some big plot problems I had. I queried BOOK 4--got about a 30% request rate and FINALLY in the summer of 2010, landed my second agent--a new agent who has since gone on to greatness (and though I still respect her deeply is not longer my agent--but that's about the biz and not writing. I have a lovely agent now, Shannon Hassan--who is NEVER EVER going to see books 1,2,and 3.)
So guess what? Agent #2 did not sell my Book 4. Instead, I wrote BOOK NUMBER FIVE.
See if you can guess the title of BOOK NUMBER FIVE?
That book is BREAKING GLASS, the fifth book I wrote and my first book to get published.
In 2013. That is a full ten years from the minute I started filling those notebooks.
I will stop here--though my journey is far from over. Getting published is just another step on the ladder. There is no arrival, only the voyage.
But here's a good one to leave you chuckling. Remember BOOK FOUR? The book that joined my other three in a shallow grave?
In 2013, a lightbulb went off, and suddenly I knew how to "fix" BOOK FOUR. Want to know the name of BOOK FOUR?
That book is UNTIL BETH--the fourth book I ever wrote and my third to be published.
Moral of the story? Never give up. But that doesn't mean keep on working and re-working the same manuscript. Put that one aside and write a new one.
Learn from your mistakes. Listen to your feedback. Apply what you know until something finally sticks!!
Has this been helpful? I really don't want any of you with a story in your hearts to let those stories go dim. Just know that in the arts, it takes time and effort to perfect your craft.
Please let me know your own stories and thoughts in the comments below.