An Essay for Writers

I get a lot of questions about how to get published in fiction, and would like to share my story with folks who are seeking the same. I had a long, bumpy, and difficult slog toward publication, and my experience may prove enlightening for those who are currently struggling on that path.

I daydreamed about my first manuscript for years before I got up the courage to start writing it. I put a lot of work into honing and polishing that first manuscript until it had a diamond-bright shine. It was exactly the kind of novel I liked to read and I considered it a masterpiece. I sent it off to a handful of top agents and checked my mailbox daily, prepared to select from among the best who offered to represent me. When no offers came, I was stunned.

Was it possible my query was reviewed by a secretary? Or an intern too green to spot blazing talent? Or maybe you had to know someone to get your foot in the door. I knew it wasn’t my writing holding me back, it was “the system.” To make a long story short….this kind of thinking went on for a couple of years.

After more rejections than I can count, I came to accept that these excuses were not getting me any closer to landing an agent. I swallowed hard, did a gut check, and started from scratch. I read voraciously. I read the classics, genre literature, memoirs, anything that exposed me to writing that was fresh, original, and sparkly. I also read dozens of books about the writing craft to learn the ropes and spot some of my problems.

And you know that manuscript I thought was a gleaming diamond? I realized it wasn’t very good. Not even worth revising. I ditched it, and wrote a completely different type of novel. This time I noticed a marked shift in the reactions I received from agents. My rejection notes got more flattering, but still no offer. Rewind and repeat this scenario for the next several manuscripts. Close, but no cigar.

Then came phase three of my writing life. I was convinced I was awful. I was too blind to spot my problems and I needed to let go of this irrational dream to ever write a novel.

But the thing was, I liked writing. I liked everything about it and didn’t want to quit, even if no one ever read my work. That gave me the freedom to be a little more risky in the type of manuscript I submitted to agents. This was when I finally found my voice and things took off for me…. and it took off fast. I think it may have been a willingness to critically assess my work and take some strategic risks in stretching the genre that finally bumped me up to the next level. In the next few years I won almost every major award in the industry and seen my novels translated into numerous languages, but with each manuscript I still live in fear that this one won’t make it. I sweat bullets over each new project, probably because of my early experience with failure. I think I am a much better writer for having weathered those storms.

The best advice I ever got was from a writer who told me to dump that first manuscript and try something entirely different. Publishers don’t want to sign a writer with only one manuscript beneath their belt. They want someone who has a ton of stories ready to burst out and can reliably deliver a new novel year after year after year. The only way you know if you are up to the task is to complete those manuscripts. Set the ones that aren’t working aside and try something new. Be brave. Play with different styles, settings, maybe even genres. This is how you will find your distinctive voice.

During my years of rejected manuscripts, self-publishing was not an option. If it had been, I might have been tempted to go that route, but in hindsight I am glad that I didn’t. Remember, during my early years of rejection I was convinced my stuff was terrific and it was only “the system” that kept my work from rising to the top of the editor’s stack. Had I self-published those early manuscripts I would not have pushed myself to keep improving.

I am NOT saying that self-publishing isn’t the right route for some writers. If your genre is very narrow or your manuscript breaks a lot of rules it will be harder to attract a publisher. In such a case, self-publishing might make sense for you, but if you want a fulltime career as a writer, it is very hard to build up a large enough fan base to make it happen. According to Digital Book World, 85% of self-published authors make zero income after their expenses are deducted. Less than 1% make more than $100,000 per year, but they are the authors who consistently give hope to the millions of aspiring writers. They are an extreme exception, so please don’t pin your hopes on their experience.

I’ve written all this not to discourage you, but to let you know that rejection, revision, and getting back up to fight another day is NORMAL. If it was easy, anyone could do it. There is an old Japanese proverb I live by: Fall seven times; Stand up eight.

Writing publishable work is much harder than it looks, but I believe it is that hard stuff that makes it great. Savor it.  Embrace it.  People often underestimate what it takes to succeed in life, because frankly, we rarely witness successful people fail.  We see brilliant athletes perform, watch famous actors on the screen, read about millionaires.  For every professional athlete, how many high school kids never made the cut?  Or how many actresses are still waiting tables, praying for their big break?  How many small businesses close with their owners quietly writing off their losses? Those failures are invisible to the wider public, which is why I want to be honest with aspiring writers who may not understand that rejection and revision is normal and necessary. You probably won’t succeed on your first manuscript. (For me it was my fifth that finally hit.) It requires honesty and humility to fairly assess your writing, and it is not something everyone can do…..but an essential skill for all successful writers. So I urge the folks getting ready to self-publish to master this skill before leaping. You will be grateful for it in the long run.

Next, how to find an agent. Here is a great online tool:

Be sure you check the box at the end for “accepting new clients.”

Many agents want to see a query letter only. I always found that odd, but you’ve got to follow their instructions to the letter. Here is an example on writing query letters:

There are tons of online resources for learning to become a better writer. You might check out Jody Hedlund’s blog for writing advice.

I want to close by doing something I never thought I’d do: quote myself! In my novel Beyond All Dreams, I wrote a scene largely inspired by my own struggles to become a writer. The scene takes place as an adolescent boy, who is desperate to become a great painter, speculates that he will “just die” if he can’t make it in art. The older and wiser hero responds:

“If you don’t make it as a painter, funnel that passion into something else, but it doesn’t have to die. Your love of art is a gift from God, even though we don’t know what form it will take yet. If you don’t make it as a painter, perhaps you will be a great teacher. Or a museum curator. Maybe you’ll become a rich industrialist and fund a museum.” He rolled back over onto his back to stare at the universe floating a million miles overhead. “Just don’t limit yourself by thinking you already know God’s purpose for you.”

Good luck on your journey, wherever it leads you!