Friday, March 5, 2010

I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you

I’m going to tell you a secret.

No, it’s not the meaning of life or why the Kool-Aid packet says not to mix it in a metal pitcher (though I’d love to learn both of those things).

I’m going to tell you the secret to getting published. Ready? Lean close, I’ll whisper. Ew, not that close, you’re smearing snot on the monitor.

OK, the key to getting published isn’t talent. It’s not practice. It isn’t even a fabulous agent, though I recommend having all of those things.

Nope, there are really just two keys to getting published. The first is perseverance – an all-consuming-teeth-gritting-balls-to-the-wall ability to keep going in the face of adversity, failure, rejection, and bad hair days.

The second is dumb luck.

That’s pretty much it.

As a soon-to-be-published author, I’m probably supposed to say something more profound. I should give you a wise, pious little smile and tell you that if you just hone your writing skills and craft the best book you possibly can, you’ll eventually get published.

I don’t believe that.

Because over the years, I’ve seen some truly terrific writers just give up. One or two rejections, one or two years of bad luck or overt failure, and they throw in the towel. They decide to quit the whole writing thing and try something safer. Like sword swallowing.

I’ve also seen some truly awful books get published. I’m not talking about the kind you love and I hate, or I love and you hate, but we all agree to hug it out and accept each other’s differing tastes.

No, I’m talking about bad writing. You know it, I know it, and we both know it gets published.

Why? Let me repeat myself. Perseverance. Dumb luck.

Years ago when Pythagoras was job hunting, he applied for a position he desperately wanted. He didn’t get it – wasn’t really even in the running – but the person who got the job was so laughably under-qualified, you had to assume there was blackmail, hypnosis, or really good sex involved.

My father – who spent 30 years working in the same profession – clapped Pythagoras on the shoulder and nodded wisely. “It’s like that a lot,” he told my dejected husband. “The wrong guy often gets the job, but someday you’ll be the wrong guy for the job.”

I’m not sure this was a great source of comfort to Pythagoras, but it was oddly comforting to me. It’s like that a lot in writing. You’ll see these hugely talented authors who could be published. Who should be published. But the perpetual beat-down gets to them and they decide not to keep going.

I can respect that.

And I can also respect the writers who work their butts off, who take failure after failure and still keep going. The writers who receive a rejection and don’t think “I suck,” but who shake their fists and shout, “Mr. Editor, you suck.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t learn from negative feedback, but the take-home lesson isn’t that you’re unworthy. It’s that you need to keep working, keep trying, keep at it until you achieve your goal.

Also, you need a little more luck.

You can’t do much about the luck. Well, you could try sacrificing a virgin in a volcano, but you’ll likely just melt your shoes and singe your eyebrows.

You do, however, have control over your ability to persevere. Someday, you might be the wrong guy for the job. And that will be the best day ever.

22 comments :

Nancy Wade said...

I'm so looking forward to being 'the wrong' guy and in the meantime, I continue tapping and submitting. Thanks for sharing the secret and allowing me to live.

As for the Kool-Aid thing....after my eldest began having issues with her stomach we did a science project on just that topic. Never really found out the reason, but I did find out Kool-Aid is the only brand with the warning. So we never drink it anymore. That was over twenty-years ago. If it stains aluminum what does it do to your stomach? Just sayin'.

kristina said...

Just this morning I got the news that my sister's first novel just got picked up by a small publisher - I now know a whole bunch of you writerly folk who can wave the "I'm a published author" banner. That makes me so happy to know - that folks actually CAN get published even if it is largely due to perserverance and dumb luck.

I also figure it can't help to know these folks - maybe there is a bit of shine involved...if so, I'm hoping it might rub off on me. :)

Congrats - you rock!

Linda G. said...

Your father is a wise man. Funny how "unfairness" doesn't rankle as much when the scale is tipped in our favor.

Re your secret to getting published: Got the stubborn part down. Guess I'll polish my lucky 4-leaf clover necklace and start sleeping with it under my pillow. :)

Julie Duck said...

I'm all for dumb luck and perseverance!! With almost 20 years of copywriter/marketing/editing experience, I started writing fiction again in 2008. And my gosh, it felt like the perfect pair of jeans! Then I finished the first story... and an agent offered representation. Those two things alone are amazing to me.

So whether any of my stories get published (hopefully, yes) or not (oh poop!), I plan to continue cranking out the hits. Sounds like you did and somebody had their ears wide open. Congratulations!

- Julie Duck

Xuxana said...

Is there any such thing as a metal pitcher?

Glen Binger said...

A very inspiring post. Great read, too! Thanks for that!

Kaye said...

That's the best post on writing I've read in a long time. People often overestimate talent and finding a good agent and underestimate perseverance. I truly believe you only fail when you give up. Thanks for sharing!

Jade Winters said...

I'm pretty sure that if you make Kool-Aid in a metal pitcher it opens a portal to an alternate universe in which ALL of us unpublished authors are rich and famous and take turns at the top of the NY Times bestseller list.

Hmmm....where did I put that metal pitcher?

Tawna Fenske said...

Nancy, good point on the rot-gut aspects of Kool-Aid. I could probably comment on the rot-gut aspects of querying and submitting, too, but I guess that's a different blog post.

kristina, huge congrats to your sister! I'm certain her luck will rub off on you. Rub her extra hard, just in case (er, I meant like a noogie, not...oh, never mind)

Linda G, you're totally right -- the biz is completely unfair, but you stop caring as much when it works in your favor.

Julie Duck, super huge good luck to you! Will keep all fingers and toes crossed.

Xuxana, I remember a childhood friend who had a metal pitcher, but she ended up in a mental institution. Come to think of it, she used to mix a lot of Kool-Aid in that thing...

Glen, I don't always try to be inspiring, but I do try to entertain! Glad I achieved both for you today :)

Kaye, you're exactly right -- when you stop thinking of publication as the payoff for being "good enough," you stop taking rejections so personally.

Jade, excellent idea on the Kool-Aid. Hey everyone, want to have a Kool-Aid party?

Tawna

Sierra Godfrey said...

You know what, this is exactly the kind of post from agented and soon to be or already published authors, so thank you. Perseverance and dumb luck is what I've been hoping and kind of counting on being the formula because I understand them.

And luck is, to me, preparation meeting opportunity - and I can handle that too.

Great post and blog.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I'm glad you said this, Tawna -- I get pretty tired of the authors who hit amazing good luck saying "all you have to do is write a good book." It's patently not true. As you eloquently point out!

(I commented yesterday and it's not there -- do you hate me? are you deleting my comments???)

Merc said...

Given how disturbing I always found the Kool Aid commercials, I avoid the name brand so I don't know. O:)

But a wonderful article on writing--very true. Thanks for sharing, I rather needed to hear that right now. :)

Mary Brebner said...

You made me laugh out loud (I sorely needed it after this crazy week). As a current query-er, I've got a tight grip on that slippery critter called Perseverance!

Oh, and a big thanks to your fantastic agent who Tweeted your great post--I've got a new blog to follow. Yippee!

Liz Czukas said...

This came at just the right time for me, thank you. The perserverance gets a little more challenging every day that I don't seem to find the dumb luck, but I'm not giving up yet. There's nothing I hate more than being wrong, so why on earth would I let the publishing world tell me that? Miss out on the opportunity to succeed in spite of rejection? HA! Not me!

I adore your blog title and I'm about to make myself a follower. Congratulations on your PW announcement, and good luck!

- Liz

Tawna Fenske said...

Sierra, glad the post struck a chord for you. I know I've read a million blog posts from newly-book-dealed authors saying, "just keep honing your writing skills," and while I'm not disagreeing with this, I don't see anything wrong with also acknowledging that this is a damn unfair business, and there's often no rhyme or reason to who sells and who doesn't. The only way to guarantee you're in the "doesn't" camp is to quit.

Jeffe, wha? I missed a comment from you? I don't have an approval thingy on here or anything, so pretty much any comment gets posted right to the blog. Is it possible you clicked a wrong button or something? Either that, or rabid demons ate the post. That seems more likely. What did you say?

Merc, glad you liked the blog post. It's OK to skip the Kool-Aid. You'll probably live longer.

Mary, I'm always happy to hear I make someone laugh. Er, that's if I'm trying to be funny. If I'm hitting myself in the head with the car door, I'm not so happy about the laughing.

Liz, if you've got he perseverance thing down, the dumb luck is bound to land in your lap sooner or later. Glad you like the blog! I'm kinda starting to enjoy it myself.

Thanks everyone for reading! It's so fun to have all these new followers, even those who aren't commenting!

Tawna

Rhonda said...

Absolutely amazing post. It's nice to be reminded that it does pay off to keep going even when it seems too frustratingly difficult and an almost useless effort.

It's also nice to be reminded that Kool-aid + metal pitcher = a rip in the space-time continuum.

Candyland said...

Tawna this post was exactly what I needed today. (Are you in my brain swimming around? If so, can you tidy up a bit?)

If it's okay with you, I'm going to post on my blog about your super-terrific post with a link to this post. Did I say "post" enough?"

Perseverance is the word of the day. Hey I just titled my post. Sweet.

Tawna Fenske said...

Rhonda, glad to provide you with both inspiring words and a reminder of Kool-Aid's more nefarious properties.

Candyland, I am indeed swimming around in your brain, and it's a little disturbing in here. Link away, by all means. Er, a that's assuming you don't run a porn site.

Tawna

Candyland said...

Porn. Why didn't I think of that. No wonder I don't yet have many followers...

If you could organize the disturbia rattling around up in there, I'd be grateful. And organized.

Claire Dawn said...

I read an author interview once on his site. They asked him what was the best advice that he could offer an aspring writer. He said:

Learn to live cheap!

He admitted that was probably not what the interviewer wanted to hear. But he said (and it's true) even if you get signed straight off the bat, the road to publication is a long one. You won't be seeing a check for a while. And when you do, it may not be the amount you were hoping for. So, learn to live cheap.

That's how advice is. We like cutesy inspiring proverbial soundign stuff. But the best advice is just like life: a little too real, and not at all cute.

Thanks for the post.

-Claire Dawn

Tawna Fenske said...

Candyland, er, yeah. Organization isn't really my thing. If you could only see my office!

Claire Dawn, I'll second that author's advice! There's definitely a reason they tell aspiring authors not to quit their day job. I can't remember the exact statistic, but I do recall that the number of authors who actually make a living on their writing is in the single digits.

Tawna

~ M said...

The thing with the Kool-Aid: The online consensus is that Kool-Aid has citric acids and particularly abrasive dyes that can erode and pick up the flavor of metal. I guess it just makes your Kool-Aid taste bad.