LitMatch: Research Literary Agents and Track Submissions

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Encouragement for the Discouraged

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a LitMatch member who was having trouble getting started in her search for publication. Like a lot of writers, she found the whole process daunting and a little scary. This, paraphrased slightly, is my response to her. It seemed to help at the time, and I'm posting it here in hopes that it might help someone else who's in the same position...

First of all, don't be discouraged. Even absent the publishing side of things, writing is a difficult pursuit. Too many writers give up too easily. The fact that you're still putting pen to paper already puts you ahead of the game.

In the process of creating LitMatch, I've learned some things about the publishing industry (any industry, really). You might find them comforting, or you might find them frustrating, depending on how you look at them. Anyway, here they are:

1) Talent means less than you might think. When I look at writers who are successful, especially those who are wildly so, I'm amazed at how many of them, well, stink. Dan Brown, Christopher Paolini, Steve Alten...all barely mediocre and all making millions. On the flipside, how many really good writers get overlooked each year because their books aren't seen as marketable? We'll never know, because those good writers aren't getting published.

2) Tastes are subjective. There are lots of people who like Dan Brown, Christopher Paolini and Steve Alten. Does that make me wrong about them? No. And, yes. As long as someone enjoys your work, then it has value, even if it only has value to you. In the end, you have to write for yourself, and no one else.

3) Who gets published when can often be a bit of a crap shoot. If you don't hit someone the right way at the right time, in the right market, you could get overlooked. (See points #1 and #2).

4) Agents are just people. There's nothing to be afraid of, or even nervous about. Put your best foot forward, naturally, but if you happen to stumble a little, don't worry about it. You're not going to get blacklisted if you have a typo in your query. They're not going to bite if they don't like your work. You might find some who are unresponsive, or even dismissive, but that's just part of the game, and nothing to take personally.

Anyway, I hope this helps a little. The important thing to remember is that writing is something you started doing because you enjoy it. Everything else is secondary.

Christopher Hawkins


Lisa K said...

Thanks for the encouragement. It's so important to hear. It hits me in the gut at least once a week that I will never publish anything and am a fool for trying. But I get up the next day and write some more and I fall in love with writing all over again that it melts my publishing worries away, at least for a while.

Pink Ink said...

Thanks for this post. I am querying agents right now, and I need all the encouragement I can get :-)

Anonymous said...

Well Done - especially like Item 4.

Anonymous said...

I think that if people like Christopher Paolini, who can create amazing imaginary worlds just with words, are mediocre writers, then we all are below average.

Christopher Hawkins said...

That's exactly my point, Anonymous. Tastes are subjective. You enjoy Paolini's work; I don't. We're both right, because there is no absolute measure of talent or marketability.

Dawn Hullender said...

You are so right and it's quite refreshing to see it from someone else's point of view. To often, we writers get caught up in that whirlwind of doubt and sadly, many put their pen and paper up - never to write again. Today's market is tough and the important thing to remember is to take each rejection as constructive critisism. As long as you love what you do, it shows in your work and many agents find that appealing in new prospects. We are our own worst critics!

Muser said...

Well said--and refreshing. I've had some success and some of the opposite, and your comments ring true.

david berardelli said...

A crap shoot is a gross understatement. As a writer who has been trying to get past those cold-hearted gatekeepers since the early seventies, I know just how impossible it is. You read all about these so-called sensitive, understanding agents who say they are looking for fresh new talent, but it means nothing. It's a smoke screen designed to make them look less horrible. Put your heart and soul into a novel, polish it until it glows, keep an open mind, then send it out. What happens? One of two things--a form rejection, or no word. If you're lucky, they might give you the impression they actually do care by including your name in the rejection. It's beyond frustrating, particularly when you keep working hard to improve your craft and no one seems to care. I don't want encouraging words from agents, publishers, bloggers or anyone else. Encouraging words don't mean a crap after you've rejected someone's work over and over. I want what I've wanted since I sent out my first novel nearly 40 years and more than 40 novels ago -- a book contract!

hapgator said...

Nice posts about a not-nice topic. A rejection form letter is not "constructive criticism," it's just a "no." Here's a poem I wrote on the topic when I was mildly less discouraged than I am today.

Paul Brucker

Thank you for submitting to our journal, but …

We always open the envelope, hoping to discover a gem --
a fresh insight, something that will justify or thrill us.

But, after a little fretting and wringing of hands,
and much serious discussion
that reaffirmed our tastes and criteria, we agreed
we are unable (i.e. unwilling) to publish your “poem.”

We never heard of you, nor will our readers.
But we can tell you are a “special” boy
who is not special enough --
the guy the high school literary teacher encouraged
to write about his fears, truths and longings.

And it doesn’t matter
whether your mother loved you,
or whether you’re more sad or lonely than us.
It doesn’t matter that you’re the most intent listener during poetry readings
or whether you wrote 20 drafts, searching for the perfect words
(and somebody said your voice is moving – if not brilliant).

We receive 3,000 submissions each issue
and accept approximately 1.5%.
Too bad you paid 83 cents for a self-addressed envelope
so we could return your “poem”(which we recycled in the round file).

It may hurt, but it’s time you realized
that you’ll never get what you want.
Still, you must value yourself for who you are,
not for how well you satisfy the needs of others.

Good luck finding a home for your “poem” elsewhere.

By the way, if you want to see what real poetry is,
we encourage you to subscribe to our magazine
– a real steal for $20. Our themes for the next two issues:
“death and redemption” and “a penny for your thoughts.”