I was chatting to a friend recently, on Twitter, about how perseverance is as important as talent and it got me thinking about the times I’ve really needed to draw on that quality during my writing career. You can be the most exquisite novelist or poet in the world but if you fall at the first or second hurdle your work will never find its way into the hands of readers.
Here are some of the HURDLES I’ve faced and how I’ve got over them.
Rejections – I started writing in 2005 and sure enough, the rejections soon started coming in after I submitted my first novel. And I’m in good company. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 20 times, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind almost 40. I have a pile of over 80 rejections upstairs in a folder for various manuscripts. For some reason I can’t throw them away. I think it’s because they represent my journey and if I’m going through tough times now they are a pertinent reminder that failure only exists if you give in. But how did I overcome that sense of disappointment and the tears? I sought the support of my online and real-life writing friends. Becoming part of an author community gave me perspective and made me realise I was not alone – that publishers or agents turning down my manuscripts wasn’t personal. And hearing success stories of writers who’d been in my position but still eventually got that publishing deal was great motivation. So don’t write in a vacuum – network and find some support.
Writer’s Block – this doesn’t happen to me often and that’s because I view my work as very diverse. Stuck on a chapter? Go and write a blog post instead. Or a short story. Or go to a cafeteria and plan the chapter roughly by hand – that always works for me. I consider all of this to still be writing and it takes away the sense of failure if I’m staring at a blank page. Or go and read a book for inspiration. It all counts. Failing that, simply take a break for a couple of hours, a day, a week…
And remember the words of Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Just write something. Get on with it. Leave the refining to the rewrite.
Bad Reviews – this isn’t something I thought about before signing my first deal. All I’d dreamt of was beautiful covers, shelfies and launch parties. Yet the first rating I ever received for my debut book, on GoodReads, wasn’t glowing and made me sharply aware that I was going to need to toughen up. Sadly my horrified expression was captured in my passport photo taken the next day although I’m glad to say that the book became a Kindle bestseller. I can laugh now, but at the time it was upsetting. However, over the years I have learnt to ignore the insulting reviews. I accept that all books get their fair share of poor ones and this is confirmed whenever I look up my favourite authors on Amazon. Some writers never read their reviews – and that is one way of dealing with it. I read every single one, with an open mind, as long as it is constructive (and polite!). It’s interesting to read the criticism, some of which I take on board if I think it makes a fair point.
My work is ME – this attitude is very debilitating and one that needs to be quashed. It’s hard for creative folk to separate themselves from their work, especially if they do it full-time. I went through a very challenging period a couple of years ago when I felt that if a book didn’t do as well as the previous one I, as a person, had failed. This, of course, is rubbish. Writing is my job – not me. I’m also a wife. A mother. A daughter. A friend. A reader. A cook. A homemaker. A fan of Buddhism. A linguist. A Walking Dead fan. And many other things.
You need to separate YOU from your authorly alter ego. Never believe that you are the sum of your sales. There are many dimensions to you. Writing is only one of them.
Self-doubt – I blogged about Imposter Syndrome here – that feeling that we’re not really authors and that someone will one day find us out. Published or unpublished we are plagued by self-doubt, especially before that first deal, but if you are putting finger to keyboard and honing your craft, you don’t simply need a contract to validate that YOU ARE A WRITER. So give the post a read and find out how I overcome those negative voices.
Rewrite Blues – these hit me recently after feedback. I almost gave up on the project but now I’m so glad I perservered. I blogged about how to cope with this here. Just remember that if someone is willing to put in the time to give you detailed, challenging feedback, it means they believe in you and your work. Step back. Deep breaths. Don’t take it personally and then get on with making your manuscript really sing.
KEEP ON GOING, whatever your own hurdles may be. It took me eight years to land my first publishing deal and it’s been worth every minute of what I call The Wilderness Years, when I was writing and submitting – although I won’t add “with little success” because the success was that during that time I was learning my craft.
And last up – manage your expectations. I couldn’t believe my first ever submission was rejected – oh, the ignorance of an ingenue! Forget red carpet film adaptation deals and literary prizes. As JK Rowling once said on Twitter (about her and her alter ego Robert Galbraith):
“Believe me, neither @RGalbraith nor I walk around thinking we’re fab. We just shoot for ‘writing better than yesterday’”.
I’ve never known a writer – who didn’t give up – not to get their work out there. Believe in yourself. Improve your art. And don’t get your passport photo taken after your first ever bad review because you’ll be stuck with it for ten years 🙂