In a recent post on his website, author Max Florschutz wrote about the need for writers to have a support group. Writing, he rightly notes, comes with very real stress. To get through it, you need someone–or a few someones–who back you, not only as an author, but as the individual of high value you always are.
I could not agree with this sentiment more. It’s incredibly tough to know if we’re headed in the right direction. We sometimes need some good advice on how to organize, or to have someone talk us through early mornings when writing seems like a chore. A support group can tip us off on tools, prompts, techniques and events that can move us forward.
All of this matters. From my perspective, though, you should have people in your court for an entirely different reason than overcoming technical anxieties and hurdles–to validate writing as a profession.
All too often, what’s most stressful about writing isn’t figuring out where to send queries or editing a draft (again). It’s not figuring out how to fix plot holes or trying to get words on the page while family life divides your attention. What messes with your head the most is fighting the negative connotations being a writer has, the idea that it is “barely” a job or isn’t serious work.
We tend to get a sense of identity from our jobs, like it or not. Without a support group or individuals who can reassure you, it’s all too easy to wonder who you are or where you fit into the big picture. Without people to counter the feedback that questions your art, it’s simple to think that maybe you’re making a mistake in creating characters and worlds, or that you’re foolish for not doing other work.
And if you think that you’re foolish for writing or that there’s a better path, then guess how high the likelihood is that you’ll quit.
Whether you tap your spouse, find a writer’s group online or toss your writing at neighbors, don’t underestimate the power of finding people to walk your writing journey with you. As Florschutz points out, your support people don’t have to be other writers. They can be anyone who will hear out your dreams, be real with you and lift you up. Commit to finding them and the work will be not only technically easier, but far more enjoyable, too.
If you’re thinking about doing any kind of querying to literary agents, or if you’re in the middle of that process, then you’ll quickly find that the most efficient way to go about it is to send off emails in batches. The rationale is that, as responses come in, you can take the feedback, tweak your query/book, and try again, rather than having everybody reject your initial poor first try.
But at what point is it enough? Where is the line where you stop and either self-publish or shelve the work?
Generally speaking, if you read blogs from real-life, active agents, the recommendations range from 50 to 100 queries. The gist here is that, if that many agents are saying no, then there’s probably a reason. This might have much less to do with your talent than the current perceived marketability of your concept.
But is that true? Is 50 to 100 some kind of magic?
There are plenty of stories of famous writers who had to go well beyond 50 to 100 queries. Jack Canfield, for example, who’s responsible for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, hit 144 big fat nos. So there’s evidence that a lot of agents can be wrong in thinking a book won’t sell, and that a little tenacity can pay off big. If you stop before you reach the agent that believes in you, it’s like giving up on digging a tunnel out when you’re just inches from breaking through.
But let’s look at the number of agents, too. There are at least 1,000 agencies within the United States. So if you’re stopping at 50 agents, then you’re only inquiring at a whopping 5 percent of American houses. Now consider that many of those agencies will allow you to submit the same project to other agents within the house, so long as you allow a specific amount of time to pass and/or clarify that another agent has seen the book already. Many agencies overseas still work with American authors, too.
Are you really going to tell yourself that a 5 percent effort is good enough? At what other job would that ever be considered acceptable? And can you even argue that you’ve seen all the different opinions about your book agents might have if you’ve only tapped 5 percent of those professionals? That’s hardly majority rule.
In full disclosure, I’m around 170 rejections on my current book. And for the reasons above, I’m not going to give up any time soon. My personal opinion is that you should stop querying your work only when you run out of options, you’re mentally or physically exhausted, or both.
I recognize, too, that there can be a race against the clock financially. If writing is your only job, then you can’t go forever without a paycheck. So self-publishing might become a necessity, even if you haven’t queried as much as you’d like. There’s no shame in setting yourself a customized cutoff point in this case. I am assuming, however, that like many other writers, you have other work that pays your bills, and that the querying can take the time it takes.
Agents can have a great sense of the market. But sometimes they do get it wrong, just like Steve Jobs initially thinking that people wouldn’t want a device without a keyboard (hello, there, iPad). So don’t necessarily assume that people won’t read your book, just because the rejections start piling up. Sometimes you really do just have to wade through the agents who are wrong to get to the one who is right. Query until you can’t anymore and be aware of just how many emails you actually have the opportunity to send off. And even if you get to the point where you’re out of agent options, you still can get your work out into the world.
So prepare yourself. You’ll be published. It’s just a matter of time.
In a previous blog post, I lamented the fact that genre labels can be limiting for writers, both creatively and when it comes to publishing. But as I’ve thought more about the issue, I’ve also realized that there’s a related problem–clear larger market distinctions.
The book I’m currently querying stands as an example. It has strong themes of faith, but also of violence. So who do I send it to? The secular market will take the violence but not the faith, and the Christian market seems to want the faith but not the violence. Because multiple agents have told me they like the story, praised the proposal and told me it has a lovely feel for its historical period, I do not question my writing. Instead, I suspect an uncertainty about which market to classify it in as the problem. I cannot “fix” that without fundamentally changing the story.
So, should I? Should I conform to fit a specific market, similar to how I might try to hit all the tropes of a specific genre, just to be more sellable?
If I really want to be true to my own voice as a writer, then I have to say no.
The reality is, life is messy. Stories can be, too. They are, in many ways, a reflection of real people and experiences, even if they contain fantastic, imaginative elements. And just like there are many people who are in the center on the political spectrum, there are stories that don’t sit right or left. They can contain gray moral ground, complex beliefs and caveats.
So why? Why assume that this middle ground does not exist, that there are not people who can see both sides of the coin or who are able to see the world in nuance instead of black and white?
My argument here is less for the elimination of poles, which have their place, and more for the acknowledgment of the center of the curve. Books that could be marketed in either direction, in my view, can get ignored, simply because they do not meet all the requirements of one side or the other. Again, it’s not unlike the situation Republicans face right now–many are leaving the party and want to form a new political group that’s more in line with what they believe. They’re not saying eliminate the GOP, but rather that they want to have their own party that reflects who they really are and that offers an alternative to so-called Trumpism.
People by nature want to categorize and label. It helps them feel more in control and make some sense of the world so they’re not overwhelmed and anxious all the time. I totally get that. And I understand the practical efficiency of classification. But sometimes there is no neat box to put something in and it’s impossible to take sides. Acknowledging this bigger picture will let the writing industry bring a much larger number of great authors and diversity of content to readers and ultimately, make money. So let’s see the whole spectrum. We all deserve a choice about where we want to sit on it and read.
Locked inside my head are multiple famous stories of writers who got rejected, only to become famous and make it big. J.K. Rowling, Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Jack Canfield, John Grisham, Stephen King are just a few people, for example, who heard “no” from publishers and agents. Their tales remind me not to give up and should offer the same encouragement to you. But is there any way to strategically cope with constant rejection and make it bearable until you join their ranks?
Why is rejection so agonizing in the first place?
Rejection as a writer is can be hard on a logistical level. You have to figure out which publisher/agent to target next, for example, and find the time to try again. That alone can be stressful. But what makes rejection truly so gut-wrenching as a writer is that it feels so personal, as though because you poured your heart into the work, they’re rejecting you instead of a manuscript. It makes you question not just your talent, but your entire sense of self-worth. And it’s these kinds of overwhelming feelings you need a plan for.
Strategies to dull the hurt
Real truth moment here: You’ll probably never eliminate the pain of rejection totally. But you can manage it in a few ways.
1. Focus on process, not numbers.
It’s tempting when you’re submitting to quantify how many submissions are out and how many times publishers/agents have rejected each one. And part of the reason for this is that writers often want to know when to pivot and perhaps self-publish. But too often, instead of seeing the number as a way to draw a line, writers see their rejections add up and take it as collective proof that they’re not cut out for the job.
So if you truly believe in the work and understand just how subjective the publishing industry is, then don’t numerically keep track. Instead, develop a sequence you can immediately engage once a rejection hits your inbox.
For example, the first thing I do when a rejection comes in is update my spreadsheet to avoid accidentally resubmitting to the same house twice.
When you know exactly what comes next, you can shift your thinking toward a task and actually do something, rather than ruminating. You can get a better sense that you’re taking control of what will happen, because you’re taking action to move forward. Because most people like familiarity, the predictability of a sequence can offer even more comfort, too. Clear sequencing also smooths out many of the logistical issues you might run into, which can mean you end up submitting more. And at the end of the day, you end up with a verifiable list of things you can look back at and say you accomplished.
Process thinking in your writing is critical when you view your writing as your career or business. No entrepreneur goes to work without a game plan. And if you are serious about your writing, then you shouldn’t, either. Know what to do and just execute, tweaking as necessary as you learn.
2. Limit social media.
Social media can be an amazing way to find beta readers, connect with others in the industry and get everyday support and empathy. It’s also a great venue in which market when you do it right. So I’m certainly not going to say don’t get online.
But researchers also know that people tend to compare themselves to others, and that browsing social media sometimes can leave you feeling “less than”.
My personal experience is that, every time I saw someone online announcing that they found representation or launched something, my heart just tanked. I was happy for them because I know the struggle of the work, of course, but underneath all that, the overwhelming thought in my head was, “How come they’re having success and I’m not? I must not be any good.” It all just shoved all the rejections I’d gotten back in my face.
So now, if I get onto Twitter or other platforms, I do so with a specific purpose, such as intentionally responding to others to develop new relationships, or to share something interesting related to writing I’ve come across.
Instead of aimlessly scrolling through your feeds, know what you’re looking for or can offer to others. Once you’ve taken care of that or spent a designated number of daily minutes on a platform, log off.
3. Work on something else.
The point here isn’t to distract yourself, although that kind of is a natural consequence. Rather, by having multiple projects going at once, you know you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket. If you get a rejection on something, then you know you’ve still got a lot of work in play or that you can offer later, and that the rejection isn’t the whole or final story for you.
Another big reason to do other writing when you’re submitting is that it’s additional practice. Even if you never see the work you sent out in print, you can be more confident knowing that your honing your skills over time so that future work does get a yes. This relates to point #1 above — if you take real action in a reliable sequence, then you’re more likely to feel like you’re still in the driver’s seat.
Additionally, writing more helps remind you that publication/representation isn’t really the main goal. Enjoying and expressing yourself is. You must write first and foremost because you love to do so. If you don’t stay in touch with that, then it’s all too easy to lose motivation and quit.
Now, can your “something else” be work or a hobby other than writing? Of course. Stepping back and taking a break can give you a bigger perspective of who you are and what you can do so that when a rejection comes in, you understand that it’s not a mark against everything you are.
Building your rejection tolerance starts now
What separates successful writers from the ones that don’t make it is that the successful writers intentionally build rejection tolerance. They find techniques that make rejection seem more like getting poked by a thorn, rather than like a vicious stab to the heart from a knife. That’s what allows them to keep submitting day after day, over and over, and that eventually gets them noticed or working with the right people.
The tips above are just three rejection-tolerance techniques that could work for you. If you focus on the task at hand with a business oriented way of thinking, and if you make sure that your interactions have clear purpose, rejections can lose their teeth and draw less blood. Weave the above strategies into your personal approach in a customized way, be patient, and don’t give up.
The progression is a familiar one–as you move up in years, you move down in the number of pictures your books have.
This is the way it is, but it isn’t the way it should be.
Reading as a multi-sensory experience
Part of the fun of reading is that your brain can take whatever is on the page and make its own movie for it. You can picture the characters and events as you go along in your own personalized way.
But as any marketer will tell you, experiences are not based on just one sense. We see, taste, smell, touch and taste in incredibly integrated ways, all of which influence our perception and memory. And there is a strong bi-directional connection between linguistics and visual perception–that is, what we see influences our language, and language influences how we view the world.
What’s more, we process visual images incredibly fast–up to 60,000 times faster than text! And 90 percent of all information that comes into the brain is images. So we’re visual by nature and are primed to work with images more than anything else.
By giving at least a small number of images to your reader, you can provide a more complete experience. You can confirm and clarify what you had intended in a way that might make what you write easier to remember and enjoy.
Think about book covers. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a story by those things, but let’s face it. We do. The image conveys something. It often summarizes the entire mood or plot of the story. It can allow us to see at a glance who the main characters are, where they are set and how they interact. In the ever-increasing sea of books on physical and digital shelves, it’s an image that initially catches our eye and prompts us to read back-cover summaries and reviews.
Another great example is movie novelizations. These often do include images from the film. When we see those images, we end up replaying the scene we’ve seen. We hear the music and dialogue again and remember the taste of the popcorn we ate.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every book become a like a preschooler’s picture book. You want to leave room for the reader to still imagine. And graphic novels are a category all their own. There’s also the practical fact that images take up more digital space and are more expensive to print. I’m simply saying that images can enhance what you write and give you another, incredibly efficient way to create a more memorable, connected experience for your reader. That generally will appeal to most people, but it might be especially important for certain groups, such as those with different types of processing disorders.
Real life examples of putting in the pictures
So how might you actually use this in your work?
One option might be to use an image as a header for each section or chapter. Like the book cover, this approach could summarize what the reader is about to encounter.
You also could sprinkle images throughout the book based on key plot points you want to stress. These plot points should be easy to identify within your outline (if you use one) or summary pitch.
But…but…no one is doing this, you say.
Oh, ho, ho, yes they are.
For starters, consider the scrapbook. These aren’t necessarily published, but they’re collections intended to integrate text, photos and even 3D mementos (e.g., the feather found on a hike) to help people remember what they loved or went through.
Cookbooks also have leaned on visual representations for decades. And there are a growing number of books in this category that aren’t simply recipes. Labeled as “story cookbooks“, they have personal or cultural accounts, and the recipes are simply highlights.
Another great example of how images can enhance a book is the Bible. An edition from Alabaster takes each book of scripture (e.g., Psalms) and presents them as an individual volume. The volumes feature beautiful, full-page images that are intended to complement the text. This is different than editions of the Bible told in graphic novel form. It’s notable because people consistently identify this mammoth text as hard to stomach. The images are an intentional way to make the text more accessible and break it up so that people are more willing to engage with the scriptures.
Your story, your unique image approach
So books for adults that have pictures absolutely have a market and can do exceptionally well. But there’s no “formula”. Depending on your format or intent, you might have a very different style or number of pictures compared to someone else.
So just think about what you’re trying to get across. If an image is going to enhance that, pop one in. If it’s not, skip it. But at least consider that the modern book can be a multi-sensory experience where images serve multiple functions, and that letters don’t have to be the only way you communicate.