Writers and desperation

Okay, so I got things a little stirred up with my post on self-publishing.  In fact, the subject even got a mention (and generated some lively debate) over at Lee Goldberg’s always-entertaining blogsite.  What all those reader comments did was remind me of just how heartbreaking this business can be.  We write our stories and we want to be read, but there’s this giant monolithic barrier called “The New York publishing house” standing between us and Getting Published.  It’s not as if I don’t know the agonies that new writers are going through.  I’ve been there myself.

And back then, I was every bit as desperate and hopeless.

What makes a new writer today think he should be immune to that desperation I felt?  What makes him think this is SUPPOSED to be easy?  What makes him think his very first book is going to get published — or deserves to get published?

Here’s the truth.  I wrote three books that didn’t sell.  And then I sold my fourth — to Harlequin.  I have a good friend who wrote seven — SEVEN! — manuscripts that didn’t sell.  Think of her desperation, her hunger, to be published.  It had to be there, driving her, or she would have just given up.  But she just kept going and wrote manuscript #8. 

And it sold.

Think about that — writing seven books that don’t sell.  Would you have the persistence to start writing #8?  Do you accept the fact that, yes, there’s an apprenticeship involved in being a writer, a period of training that you will be forced to undergo before you finally understand what the craft is all about? 

No, it isn’t easy to get accepted by a publisher, and get paid for your work.  It’s a lot easier to whip out the checkbook and pay a vanity press to print your manuscript.  But which one would make you truly feel like a Published Author?

And if you can just pay to get published, where’s the incentive to hone your craft, to study your own work with a critical eye, to polish and polish some more?  Where’s the incentive to write books number seven and eight and nine if each one is just going to mean you have to whip out that old checkbook again to pay to see yourself in print?

Not everyone can write a publishable book.  That’s just the hard truth.  Too many people think: “Hey, I know how to write a sentence.  I know grammar, and I can come up with a story.  Why don’t I just take a few weeks off a write a novel and get published and get rich?”  It’s amazing to me that people think this, but they do.  And many of these are otherwise accomplished people, intelligent people, who could probably do very well in any number of fields.  But none of them would dream of working as an engineer or a doctor or a carpenter without first learning their craft.  They’d expect to put in at least four years before they’d feel competent.

So why do they think that they can write a publishable novel their first time out, without bothering to first learn the craft?

I know I sound like one of those old surgeons we medical students used to groan about, the seasoned veterans who’d tell us “We went through hell to become surgeons, and so should you.   So just suck it up and take it, or you don’t deserve to hold a scalpel.”  I used to think that their “trial by fire” philosophy was B.S.  Now I’m beginning to think it wasn’t so dumb after all.  A surgeon who’s on call every other night sees a lot of cases, learns a lot of hard lessons.  And on the other end of it, he’s a much better doctor.

Maybe that’s true for writers as well. 

If you really want to be a published novelist, you’ll stick with it.  You won’t say “I’ll give it a year, maybe two.”  You’ll say “I’ll keep at it, I’ll keep improving my craft, year after year.  Even if it never happens.” 

Because it may never happen.  That’s the tough reality.    

35 replies
  1. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    why do people look at writing differently?just being literate doesn’t carry creativity along as part of the deal-i had to write clear descriptions of sometimes unclear series of events and summarize occasionally complex cases during my law enforcement career-creative writing was not encouraged ,although i know it happened-but going from that to fiction would be like going from baseball to watchmaking-one doesn’t prepare you for the other,other than competent use of language,which everyone should try to acquire-i remember getting new agents right out of the academy and saying more or less-you learned a lot,eh?-now you’re going to learn how the job really works-i was in the same position when i started-and some people never could do it right,regardless of how much they absorbed in training-learning has to be supplemeted by ability- i have an in law who writes stories and novels-he’s an intelligent man who had a responsible position involving a lot of technical knowledge,but his stories are unreadable-he’s never been published and probably won’t be-i think part of successful fiction writing is something you can’t just learn-like music,or painting-after learning what you can,there has to be some sort of spark which is either there or isn’t-am i making any sense here?

  2. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Hi Tess,

    Tough words for struggling writers to read, but what you say is exactly right. Getting published takes hard work, a drive to succeed, and perseverance–not the ability to write a check to a vanity or subsidy press.

    However, having been a struggling writer not so long ago myself, I may be able to shed a little light on the reason so many people expect things to be easier: we hear so much more about the authors who hit a home run on the first try than we do about the ones who strike out a time or two or seven.

    I can name several home-run hitters, just off-hand: Nicholas Sparks, Brad Thor, Carolyn Parkhurst, Jennifer Weiner. A new one, Julie Buxbaum. If any of them have unpublished novels tucked away, they’re being very quiet about it.

    I feel very fortunate that I found success on my third try. Still, those first-timers’ stories stick with me like a slightly bad taste in my mouth (though I truly am happy for their good fortune!). I remember my earlier disappointments vividly. I remember thinking about self-publishing as a possibility.

    But I knew better than to go that route, for all the reasons you discuss.

    Not everyone who tries hard will succeed. But almost no one who pays to have their work in print will get very far. If I had succumbed to impatience instead of working hard to learn the craft and then trying again, and again, I’m sure I would not now have Random House and seven foreign publishers preparing to publish my work!

  3. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, my situation is just the opposite. I love to talk about books and relate some of the stories I’ve read and I’ve had a few people tell me that I should try my hand at writing and getting published. I have no desire to get into that field. The muse simply isn’t there. The world needs readers too and any time I feel writing I can always blog here. Let’s see now, “It was a dark and stormy night. . .”
    By the way I noticed something interesting at my bookstore today. I was shopping for a new dictionary and was also investigating what I thought was a rumor. I was looking at the new Oxford English Dictionary and, sure enough, the word “muggle” was there credited to J. K. Rowling. She got a word in the dictionary!!!

  4. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Great posting Tess….

    I have been writing for 9 years. A few childrens books and a novel.

    Not a dime.

    IN fact more money went out on stamps and envelopes then has ever come in.

    And the one singular thing that has kept me going year after year despite the impossible odds….(aside from the continued depressing news items in Publishers Weekly about dozens of first time authors getting six figures on their FIRST books!!!!) is my novel actually made it to an agents desk in New York.

    He called and wanted to hang onto it for a week to consider it.

    I of course said yes.

    The week went by and he finally said no.

    That was two years ago.

    If it wasn’t for that call—-being so close to getting my foot in the door….who knows where I would be today?

    But that call DID happen.
    And it built up my confidence.

    And I am still hammering on the laptop… day after day…
    hoping to get yet another call in 2007.

    I hope.

    Boy, I sure hope………….

  5. Linda Adams
    Linda Adams says:

    One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that well-written prose isn’t enough. You can have a great writing style, polished prose, and know where all the commas are supposed to go–and still get rejected. When push comes to shove, the main thing that counts is that the story has to work and stand out from everyone else’s.

    And it’s a lot of work learning how to do all that. Between me and co-writer I think we’ve wracked up about ten books, plus many, many revisions on the thriller we’ll start submitting soon. All of those revisions were learning how to make the story work right.

    Yet, we have a member of our critique group who has at least thirteen revisions of his book. He keeps revising words and shuffling scenes, but he absolutely refuses to do the one thing that would get his book wroking–make the story work right. Somehow he thinks if he clears up the prose problems, he’ll be able to just ship it off to an agent and get it published. He hasn’t quite grasped yet how competitive and hard it actually is to get published.

    It’s important to learn about the business. Learn everything you can. Many agents are blogging and provide valuable infromation. Get Publisher’s Weekly. It’s expensive, and you won’t see the benefits of reading immediately. But overtime, you’ll begin to realize you’re more knowledgeable, and that’ll help you with crafting your story.

  6. ec
    ec says:

    I think there are a number of reasons why someone would choose to self-publish. The desire to avoid paying one’s dues is one of them, certainly, but not the only one.

    That said, this post contains hard truths that aspiring writers need to take to heart. I receive a lot of email from young writers who want assurance of publication before they put in the hard work of writing. One young man wanted to write a Star Wars short story, but he didn’t think it worth his while until I’d read a sample page, passed it along to my editor, and then sent it George Lucas for HIS approval. (Ummm…sorry, but that’s SO not an address in my rolladex…) Then, and only then, would this young man attempt to write the story.

    Another comment request is a quick explanation of how to “get an idea down on paper.” It doesn’t occur to people who’ve never picked up a paintbrush to say to an artist, “I have a great idea for a book cover–all I need to do is get it down on canvas. But first, do you think a publisher will buy it?” Most people have a basic understanding of painting is a craft that must be learned. Most don’t expect that their first attempt will end up in a museum, or that they’ll be a professional musician after they learn their first piano piece. But a lot of people DO have those expectations for writing. It’s neither realistic nor reasonable.

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    “I don’t want to write it until I know it will sell” is something I’ve heard a number of times from unpublished writers, and boy does it drive me insane. One aspiring author has written about 50 pages of a novel, and thinks that he shouldn’t have to finish it until someone pays him for the rest. “That’s the way the real world works,” he says. “No one expects a contractor to finish building a house until he gets at least partial payment.”

    Um, no. But no one would pay you to build a house if you’re not licensed and you’ve never built a house before, and you’ve just figured out how to swing a hammer.

    Therese, congrats on your success!

  8. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: You hit the critical fact on the head, a fact that is ususally overlooked in the debated subject of self-publishing. Namely, the MS to be published must in fact be marketable, it must be high quality and must be a viable competitor for readers of the genre. Without a good book to start with, any publishing, whether traditional or “self,” will not succeed.

    While I agree with you to that point, I disagree with your resulting conclusion that traditional NY publishing is the only viable route to success. I have successfully brought 2 books to market, with two more scheduled for 2007, and don’t know a single person from New York.

  9. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    I was playing a videogame with my nine year old last night. It’s called Xynacide. Basically, you’re a space ship, and you blow up other space ships.

    When we started the game, we had to choose the difficulty, Easy, Medium, or Expert. I chose Expert, and my son asked me why. I told him that when we win the game on the hardest level, it will be more rewarding and we’ll feel better about the accomplishment.

    The things we’re most proud of are often the things that were the most difficult to achieve.

  10. marky48
    marky48 says:

    JMH you paid to publish, and though no fault of your own they aren’t successful, as 99.99 percent of self-vanity-and so on efforts are. Those are the cold hard facts.

    My two nonfiction books, the latter on the Benedict Arnold expedition to Quebec in 1775, has been rejected multiple times citing small market, local story, not national in scope, obscure historical figure, and on and on.

    History does sell though and this same story sold by a historian in charge of our Colburn House Historic Site in Pittston, Maine. He happened to have access to my manuscript, (a long torrid tale in its own right) but more to the point he had a publication history and an good agent. He had platform, and I had a “family” story. There are many reasons for rejection and marketability is right up there. That said frequently two books can be written on the same subject, so I have hope.

  11. dsurrett
    dsurrett says:

    Hard words, Tess. Hard, but true.
    I thought my short stories were remarkable and couldn’t understand why magazines weren’t banging my doors down to look at them and buy them. Then I went to a critique group and was almost embarrassed to read my slop by the time it was my turn. That’s when I realized the road would be a lot longer and bumpier than I thought.
    So now I keep on writing, revising, getting the opinions of others, and revising again. I also try to read a wider variety of authors than I used to.
    I’ve had very limited success but know the only way to improve is to keep going.
    Almost everything meaningful in life comes down to perseverance. At least for me, the secret is to have FUN in the midst of the continuing saga.

  12. struggler
    struggler says:

    As a writer of absolutely nothing so far, and dreaming of supporting my family as a writer one day, I have to confess to having taken a long hard look at self-publishing over the past year, and struck what I thought was a fair and commercially viable deal. Tess has told me to forget that route and I will. Meanwhile another piece of advice that Tess gave us recently was that the best kind of research we can do, as wannabe-published-authors, is to READ constantly. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years or more. It’s a pleasurable experience most of the time of course, but in a way it’s depressing because every time I read a great book one of my first reactions is ‘phew – THAT’S the kind of standard I’m going to be up against’. And yes, this includes a certain Ms T. Gerritsen whose work has given me much enjoyment this year but at the same time has made me ask those dreaded and no doubt familiar questions such as ‘Am I good enough?’ or ‘How on earth can I match this?’ I must admit that two or three years ago I would probably have fit those stereotypes Tess and others paint here, because over the years I’ve been told countless times ‘you can really write a story’ or ‘you should write for a living’ and so I thought Yes! That’s what I’ll do and I can live this wonderful world of working when I feel like it, spending huge amounts of time with my young family, and generally living an ideal lifestyle. Then I started reading for research purposes, and as the books got better, I took two steps back with each one as far as self-esteem was concerned. Then again, I have read some books that have been rapidly converted to mega-budget Hollywood movies (can you guess which) and such writing motivated me because I felt sure that I could have made a far better job of it. It serves to underline that, as Linda Adams (above) puts it, it’s the story that sells and not the style.

    Tess, on behalf of everyone who hasn’t said so yet, thanks so much for your thoughts and advice. Some of us, like myself, hang on your every word, and your ‘closeness’ to us all makes you stand out even higher than you already do. Don’t change a thing, you’re doing everything just right as you are.

  13. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    And then there’s the quote we’ve probably all heard about the best way to become a writer: “Write, write, write and read, read, read.”

    But I’m also reminded of something I read in my Guppy newsletter (the Guppies are a SinC chapter) in an interview Sandy Parshall did with Karin Slaughter.

    Karin said: “My main goal is to get better with each book, so I am always looking for ways to make a story more gripping or form a character more realistically. The only person you should ever compete against is yourself. It’s the only way you’ll ever really win.”

  14. april
    april says:

    As important as publishing is, a lot of writers write to write. I’ve never had a big desire to publish, but I write all the time. I love to create. Then, I put it aside and start something new. That’s where book #8 comes from. A true artist of any means does it because s/he has to.

  15. egl
    egl says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Most POD stuff is pathetic. There is one reason to go that route however.
    My wife’s granfather wrote a novel, sent it a publisher and threw it away when it was rejected. She would love to see what he wrote. As “mature” writers, we’ve decided that if it becomes abundantly clear that we’re not going to get published, we’ll look at POD so we can leave a hard copy behind for posterity.

  16. ec
    ec says:

    Marky48, I think egl has a very valid point. There are some books that never will be conventionally published–some of which probably shouldn’t be published–that would nonetheless be of great interest to family and friends. Why NOT turn to self-publishing for these small, personal projects? There is nothing wrong, upon occasion, with wanting the book you want and to hell with everyone else.

    This isn’t the sort of self-publishing Dr. Gerritsen was addressing in this post, granted, and while I agree with her argument in most regards, I also maintain that there are times when self-publishing might be a viable option.

    A dozen copies of that grandfather’s self-published novel might have become cherished family heirlooms. Recipe collections, local folklore, a collection of essays the local rabbi originally published as a column in a local paper–all of these might be worthwhile projects for sale in a small community market. For that matter, the audience need be no larger than one; I suspect my mother will be pleased to relive her trip to Ireland by paging through the self-published book I plan to put together for her as a birthday gift. (LuLu.com publishing, a print run of two copies, total cost: too damn much.)

    Not everyone who loves music aspires to sing “Vissi d’arte” on the stage of La Scala, but that doesn’t mean they can’t chime in on the occasional heartfelt chorus of “Happy Birthday” in the privacy of their own homes. Some audiences are small and personal, and with all due respect to Mr. Epstein, I don’t think people should be told that unless they can sing like Maria Callas, they should stfu.

  17. Tess
    Tess says:

    ec and egl, I absolutely agree with you that if you have personal memoirs or stories that you want to pass on to your family, then self-publishing may be perfect for your needs. Not every writer has dreams of bestseller lists and national releases. Sometimes our stories are very personal, and we just want our grandkids to read them. I have some old, beautifully bound books of my great-grandfather’s poems, printed over a hundred years ago in China. I have no idea if they were self-published, but I assume they were. It doesn’t matter. Even though I can’t read them (since they’re in Chinese) it thrills me to know that these are my great-grandfather’s poems, and they haven’t vanished from the face of the earth.

  18. marky48
    marky48 says:

    Well, in that vein I have two that will remain in print forever, but I sure didn’t stop there and wouldn’t do it again. In those days it was free, but still a bad experiment. Memoirs get a bad rap, especially since Frey, and I still maintain mine are commerical. It depends what one did in them, but I didn’t try to sell them so…Binding genalogical information is certainly a case in point, even though in 1910 mine was commercially published.

  19. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    Call me nuts, but this is why I think the first half of American Idol should be required viewing for all aspiring writers. No, seriously, there are a lot of good lessons to be found there, like “most people are terrible judges of their own abilities” and “if you don’t succeed, it’s probably because you weren’t good enough, not because the judges are evil”. And, most painfully, “just okay isn’t enough”. We all want to be the big winner, but I think it’s important to be aware of the possibility that you could be the one who makes Simon pound his head on the desk.

    (Also, “too much fake tanner makes you look really scary”.)

  20. Mikal
    Mikal says:

    How true all of these words are.

    I just think, beyond all of the disappointment and crud, if you REALLY want it, then you’ll keep on working at it.. no matter what. A couple (couple dozen.. hundred..??) of rejected manuscripts shouldn’t faze you.

  21. meika
    meika says:

    in the future everything wil be self-published because distribution will no longer be a problem, publicity will be still an issue, of course, but thats what publishing really means,

    self-published and be damned I say

    (just make sure you send out enough review copies to get a chance of being damned)

    I am doing it right on a test run, you can download a electronic review copy from my website.


    Hope that’s not too pushy. I promise not to snarl if you hate it.

    BTW bookstores cannot return unsold titles if they are off the backlist, POD titles are just instant backlist titles, so grab the PDF review copies while you can

    the product is the advert…

  22. Terry Snipes
    Terry Snipes says:

    I have been writing on my novel for about a month. I’ve moved my daily word count up from 500 words a day to 1,000 to 2,000. Sometimes I get distracted, and find it hard to reach the 500 word mark.

    I am so happy to have found this blog. Whenever I get writer’s block or feel like my characters are pieces of COCK-A-DOODY, I read about others going through the same thing and I feel a lot stronger.

  23. struggler
    struggler says:

    Does the following have any relevance to this topic?

    HP in book printer deal with Amazon

    By Kevin Allison of the Financial Times

    Hewlett-Packard will today unveil its latest push to capitalise on the digital transformation that is gripping the printing industry with a deal to provide industrial-speed colour printers for Amazon’s books-on-demand service. The deal is a sign of the opportunity HP sees for its digital printing technologies to disrupt the industrial printing market, most of which still runs on analogue printing presses. Terms were not disclosed. Vyomesh Joshi, the head of HP’s $27bn printing business, said the Amazon deal marked the latest progress in HP’s bid to transform “from a printer company into a printing company”.

    HP hopes its high-speed Indigo digital printers, together with the software to manage them, will find a niche as Amazon and other retailers and publishers seek to manage their inventories better and tap into unmet demand for out-of-print titles. “With an internet as an enabler, we believe there is tremendous demand for customers to get to that long-tail content,” said Mr Joshi. Greg Greeley, vice-president of Amazon’s books business, said the deal would “significantly increase the number of available titles our customers can purchase”. The move comes amid a broader shift towards digital technologies. Riley McNulty, an analyst at IDC, said digital printing is likely to gain share over the next several years as price pressures force printers to find new ways to expand their business. “The [analogue] business isn’t necessarily going away, but it’s very difficult to grow it,” he said.

    Mr McNulty said digital technologies could improve the economics of the printing business by shortening turnaround times and by making it more economical to print in smaller batches. Digitisation also allows for customisation of individual copies of pages within a single print run – a feature that holds tremendous appeal for the multibillion-dollar direct mail business. HP has said it expects the addressable market for digital printing to grow from about $1bn today to $10bn by 2010. It faces competition from companies like Xerox and IBM, which are also encouraging customers to buy digital presses to augment their existing equipment. Today’s announcement marks the latest in a series of new deals by HP’s imaging and printing group. Earlier this year, it launched a line of new photo printing kiosks for use in retail stores. Mr Joshi’s group also launched Halo, a high-end video conferencing system designed for use by big companies.

  24. Tess
    Tess says:

    Struggler, it does make printing one’s own books easier. But it still, alas, doesn’t solve the chain bookstore distribution problem. And unless and until a bookstore can print a copy within 60 seconds, I’m afraid that customers are still going to demand that a copy be in the store and ready to buy.

  25. Grace
    Grace says:


    As someone who works in PR and specializes in managing author’s careers, I understand your opinion of self-published authors. Yes, many of them are arrogant and puffed up about their novels that are often rambling, boring wordfests.

    However, anyone who works in the fiction market today MUST know the truth of the business. The truth is the fiction market is suffering one of the worst periods ever. Publishers seem to have no idea what qualifies as “solid, good writing.” They are all looking for the next hot property…the next DaVinci Code…the next Grisham…the next book that will be an Oscar-winning film…I’ve heard it all and I’ve read a glut of what passes for “hot” fiction and I shake my head and wonder what in the hell the publisher was thinking when they gave it the green light.

    With that said, I have met some incredibly talented women and men over the last five years who have some of the most fantastic manuscripts and cannot get either an agent or a publisher to say “yes.” These are the kinds of books that literally linger on the soul after you read them.

    One of these authors has been turned down by 28 publishers but she wouldn’t give up. The publishers sent her some of the most glowing rejection letters I’ve ever read. They called her “superb” and one even said that they “looked forward to seeing her name on the NYT Best seller list!” They simply didn’t want to take what they referred to as “a risk” with a mid-list type story. (Frankly, I didn’t think this particular book was mid-list.) It seems that in NY, you’re either BIG TIME or you’re nothing. The “mid-list” author of 10 years ago is dead, so I’m told. But whether you’d call her mid-list, top of the heap or whatever, the book is damn good.

    So, what did she do? She went the route of a small press. Not self-publshing or P.O.D. But a small press with some minor connections and zero marketing dollars. She BELIEVED in herself and her book and was not going to be deterred by an industry that has lost its way. Her book doesn’t come out until January 1, but she’s already developed a strong following and a few great reviews. We’re doing a grassroots campaign and it seems to be taking hold.

    The bottom line is whatever the book, the story has to be good. It can be wrapped up in a pretty cover and have artsy textured pages with elegant fonts but the story can still be awful. I think that some of the bravest writers out there today are not necessarily in the thick of the publishing world but, instead, skirting the edges with their original stories that cannot be pigeonholed by the ivory towered publishing houses who have forgotten what good writing looks like.

    I’m proud to be helping one of those authors establish a long and legendary career.

    Oh, and her name is Laurel Dewey and her book is Protector.

    Grace Ross

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