I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
Harper Lee’s advice sounds good—until we remember that she was so distraught by her hometown’s reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird and the steep price of fame that she never wrote another book.
Ups and downs. Highs and lows. Peaks and valleys. That’s the nature of the publishing business. But knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
The highs, well, just enjoy them. Then remind yourself that what goes up, must come down.
Maintaining a sure and steady optimism in the face of rejection, rotten reviews, underwater royalty statements, unrenewed contracts, no books in stores, and second book syndrome isn’t easy. There are days when you may feel that it’s impossible.
On those days: Get mad. Get even. Go back to work.
I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you’.
Or as my father always says, don’t let the bastards get you down. Scream. Yell. Throw a pity party. But keep on writing.
Easy for you to say, you may be thinking. But no, it isn’t easy for me to say. I’ve been a writer, an agent, an acquisitions editor, a writing teacher—and suffered the slings and arrows of publishing at every stage of the journey.
- As a writer: I’ve been writing for decades, and I’m just now realizing my dream of writing a mystery series.
- As an agent: I’ve worked hard to sell my clients’ wonderful stories—and when I’ve failed to sell one, my heart has broken for the writer and the reader.
- As an acquisitions editor: I’ve helped writers make their books the best they could be—only to see them die on the shelf.
- As a writing teacher: I’ve coached and encouraged writers to do the work they were born to do only to see some of the most talented burn out or give up or just plain quit.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Writing is like life. Life is full of delights and disappointments—and the very things that bring you the greatest delights often bring you the greatest disappointments. Your wedding day—and the day you filed for divorce. Your first orgasm—and your first STD. Your hard-won promotion—and your abrupt firing.
The writing life is no different. It’s as full of surprises, good and bad, as life is. What you think is going to happen hardly ever happens. And even if it does happen, it hardly ever looks like you thought it would.
Which is, after all, why we write fiction in the first place. To make sense of the random acts of kindness and cruelty that befall all of us. To establish order over the chaos of our lives. To find the meaning in what it means to be human.
Storytelling is your superpower. Don’t let the naysayers take that away from you. Ever.
An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts upon himself.
Let go of your expectations, your judgments, your visions of success and your fears of failure. They’re all inaccurate, if not downright delusional.
Don’t stop there. It’s not enough to let go of your delusions, let go of others’ delusions, too. Your mother is not right when she says that you’re the best writer in the world, and that reviewer is not right when he says (or she, so many are anonymous, who knows) that you’re the worst writer in the world. Let that shit go.
I always tell my clients, don’t read reviews. Your publisher will send you the good ones, so you won’t miss them. You don’t need to read the bad ones. They’ll haunt you—and not in a good way.
Instead, post your favorite fan letters above your desk where you can see them every day. Let them serve as continual reminders that you are a writer, and that you write not for your mother or for reviewers, but for readers.
You chose a subjective profession. If you want a right and wrong, stop and leave and be an accountant. But you’re never going to get a fan letter about doing a great tax return.
Because writing well is the best revenge.