Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Dear Writers: Don’t Be Afraid To Rest!

writer rest

Last fall, I had a spate where about six different deadlines hit me within two months. It was INTENSE; I was working for hours each day just to stay on top of things, and by the end of the two-month stretch when I turned in everything I’d been working on, I’d developed a persistent pain in my forearms that I thought was tendonitis. I’d had similar issues off and on throughout college, but they’d never hit the point of being completely debilitating, and I figured that once the deadlines went away the pain would, too.

Instead, even with greatly reduced work activity, the pain increased – to the point that I could hardly scroll through Twitter on my phone without feeling agonizing jolts from my fingertips all the way to my elbow. I made an appointment with my physical therapist, hopeful that it would be a quick fix. Instead, she informed me that the pain was not due to tendonitis – it was due to several injured nerves in my forearms, similar to carpal tunnel but more widespread. She gave me a host of exercises to do, but warned me – and has repeated this warning several times in the intervening months – that really, the only thing that was going to truly heal my nerve injury was rest.

Over and over again, something has emerged in talking with my writer friends: We writers, as a whole, are terrible at taking a break. We’re terrible at resting, at self-care, at allowing ourselves to have fallow spells in order to fill our well creatively. More writers than I can count, especially those who’ve been published or have books under contract, have worked themselves into illness or injury – repetitive stress injuries like mine, repeated colds, severe anxiety, depression, and more. Often, I see writers Tweeting about having just finished an especially grueling work in progress, and how they were going to celebrate by – you guessed it – diving right into something new.

I’ve seen friends refuse to give themselves breaks (even when they weren’t on deadlines!) through serious sickness, family disasters, the deaths of loved ones, and day job stresses. I’ve seen writers keep pushing themselves even when they’re so stressed by publishing that they’re breaking down into tears every day or two. Some of this is due to punishing schedules imposed on them by external deadlines, yes – but often, the pressure is completely internal.

Now, I love the creative rush of having a project that’s consuming all my waking thoughts just as much as the next writer. But between the nerve injury slowing my pace enormously and a recent bout of serious illness due to my cystic fibrosis, I’ve had ample time lately to think about the importance of rest and gentleness to ourselves. And here’s what I’ve come to:

  1. Without rest, we will all hit our breaking points. Whether it’s a panic attack in the middle of the grocery store, depression so intense you can’t get out of bed, a repetitive stress injury that impedes your ability to work, or something else, we all have our limits – and if we push too hard, we’ll eventually reach them.
  2. Self-care is, in some ways, even more important for writers than for people in different fields. As a writer pursuing publication, it can feel like the goalpost is constantly moving. First, it’s getting the agent. Then, getting the book deal. Then, getting good trade reviews or blurbs from the authors you love. Then, selling well. Then, getting the next book deal – and the next, and the next, and the next. When there is always something else to aspire to, it can be hard to recognize and celebrate the moments when you ARE succeeding. I’ve have friends who are NYT bestsellers who still struggle with crippling self-doubt and still feel like they’ll never get where they want to be. If left unchecked, this kind of pattern can leave us anxious and stressed, unable to muster any of the joy that drew us to writing in the first place. It’s crucial to take time to connect with ourselves, to do the things that bring us happiness, and to celebrate the small successes – even if that’s just “I finished this draft!” or “I wrote a scene that was really tough for me!” Self-care and self-celebration are vital to make sure that we’re not burning ourselves out constantly chasing the shifting goalposts of our field.
  3. It’s okay to take breaks. I sometimes get the feeling that we worry we won’t keep being able to call ourselves writers if we don’t have a project in the works 24/7. But sometimes, the circumstances in our lives – or in our bodies or our brains – demand that we step back, take a break, and allow ourselves to focus on other things for awhile. This might be because we’re struggling with our latest rejections, or because we’re battling illness or injury or mental health concerns, or simply because something else in our life has become more pressing for the moment. Regardless of the circumstances, It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to have a little while go by without cranking out the words every single day. It’s okay to be gentle and forgiving to ourselves, and treat our own bodies and spirits the way we’d treat those we love.
  4. Sometimes a fallow period leads to greater creativity later on. Nobody is a machine, and sometimes when we’re exhausted, taking some time away can be exactly what we need to recharge our creative tanks. I try to remember when I’m in these fallow periods that I’m not being lazy or slacking off – I’m letting my brain and my spirit connect with the things that feed my creativity, so that when I’m ready to get writing again, I can have inspiration when I need it.
  5. We MUST get help when we need it. The only thing worse than continuing to work ourselves into exhaustion when problems are rearing their ugly heads is to do that and to neglect treatment for those problems, too. I made that mistake last year, and I’m still regretting it: Because I thought it would go away on its own, I was slow to get in touch with my physical therapist to deal with my nerve injury. I wonder all the time if I could’ve saved myself a lot of pain and been able to work much more right now if I had just called her up as soon as I started feeling the first twinges of pain last fall. Likewise, whatever the problem that’s besetting us, it’s important to recognize when we need help – from a doctor, a physical therapist, or a mental health professional. Far too often, I think we undermine our own problems, brushing them off as not being that big a deal – until they suddenly reach the point where they become completely crippling.

Do you struggle with taking breaks in your writing life? Have you found especially good self-care tips that help you balance your writing career with everything else? I’d love to hear about them!

 

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2018.

Writer, Defined

Last month, I wrote a pep talk of sorts for people dealing with an existential crisis about being a writer. I received a lot of positive feedback from friends who said that it really helped them. And while I’m thrilled to hear things like that, I have a confession: I wrote that post as much for myself as anyone. This post is a companion to that one, in which I am, to reference the name of this website, just thinking through my fingers.

I’m about to do something that promises to be even more mind-blowingly meta than the time I ran the operation instructions for my new paper shredder through the paper shredder. I’m about to look up the definition of the word “definition” in the dictionary. I hope the universe doesn’t collapse in on itself.

Definition. Noun. (deh-feh-ni-shun).

From the Latin “definitus,” meaning, “set within limits.”

  1. A statement expressing the essential or intrinsic nature of something.
  2. The action or power of describing or explaining, or of making precise, specific, and clear.

As writers, definitions are absolutely crucial, because words are our business, and meanings matter. Indeed, definitions are the standards on which all language is based, and the very load-bearing beams of civilization itself. If people cannot agree on what words mean, then all communication breaks down, understanding falls apart, and confusion and chaos will be all that is left! Dogs and cats, living together…MASS HYSTERIA!

But I digress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about definitions, about how we as writers define ourselves, and about what definitions we choose to accept from others. When did you first think or yourself as a “writer?” When did you first respond with “I’m a writer” when someone asked what you did? What qualifies one to say, “I’m a writer” with confidence?

For some, the answers to those questions are simple. They’ve been thinking of themselves as writers for much of their lives, and they have no problem saying it to others, because they see the word “writer” as the expression of their essential or intrinsic nature. It’s clearly and precisely who they are. It’s their definition.

Writer.png

For others, however, that definition doesn’t come quite so easily. I have enjoyed writing for a good portion of my life, but it has always been hard to refer to myself as a writer. Even when my first book was published, I found myself struggling to say “I’m a writer” when talking with others. I always pictured “real writers” as people who wrote full time, who earned every penny of their income from words they wrote, and who took up several inches of shelf space at the bookstore or library. But that definition didn’t seem to apply to me. Defining myself as a writer felt inauthentic. It felt fraudulent. After all, I only had one book published, and I still had a day job. How could I call myself a writer? Instead, I would tell people “I wrote a book,” and even that would come out rather sheepish in tone, bordering on apologetic, as if I was about to follow that statement up with “…and I’m sorry.” To this day, in fact, even with multiple books under my belt, it still feels a little weird to say the words “I’m a writer” out loud. I half expect someone to vocally challenge me every time I say it.

Definitions such as “writer,” like so many things in life, are often easier to see in others rather than in ourselves. What is much easier, unfortunately, is to accept the negative definitions that come from others. We allow ourselves to be set within the limits that other people have chosen. We base our entire identity off of one bad review that some thoughtless person pounded out in a fit of anger. We define our self worth based on the amount of our royalty checks—or the lack thereof. We are so quick to give buoying words of support to other struggling writers, yet just as quick to dismiss those words when offered to us.

We’re an interesting bunch, aren’t we?

One of my all-time favorite films is The Iron Giant. In that story, a gigantic extraterrestrial robot falls to earth and, because of damage to its head, suffers from a sort of amnesia. The giant has no idea what he is at first, and gradually learns to see the world through the eyes of a young boy who becomes his friend. The boy tells the giant that he can choose to be whatever he wants to be. The giant, having heard his new friend tell stories about a comic book hero, decides he wants to be Superman. However, the giant eventually discovers the truth about his identity—that he is, essentially, a giant weapon. But the giant refuses to accept that definition, stating clearly, “I am not a gun!” He then flies away to save the boy’s small town from being destroyed by a nuclear missile, and his last word before sacrificing himself is said almost as a smile: “Superman.”

The most powerful lesson I take away from that story is this: No one gets to define me but me. I am a writer because I write. You are a writer because you write. It doesn’t matter if you’re published, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make any money at it, and it doesn’t matter if you only do it because you enjoy it.

Say it with me: I. Am. A. Writer.

Now say it again.

Now one more time, with feeling.

Scribo ergo sum. I write, therefore I am.

That is who I am.

That is who you are.

No one else gets to define me but me.

No one else gets to define you but you.

Is that clear enough? Is that precise enough? Is that enough of an expression of your essential nature? If not, let’s go to the dictionary for another definition:

Writer. Noun. (rie-ter).

  1. One that writes.

Synonyms: author, wordsmith, scribe, novelist, essayist, storyteller, biographer, journalist, tragedian, poet, scrivener, litterateur, blogger, columnist, scribbler.

SEE ALSO: YOU.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Fingers vs. Feet—How NaNoWriMo Is Like Running a Marathon

Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.

For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.

—Amanda Loudin, Washington Post

On October 7, 2017, I was fortunate enough to run the St. George Marathon for the very first time. Since I ran the race while I was in the middle of preparing for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was impossible for me not to see the similarities between marathon running and marathon writing.

Not everyone enjoys running, of course, but over the past several years it’s become a big part of my life. It’s also become an integral element of my writing process. Even if you have no interest in ever running a marathon (or even a 5K), if you’re “competing” in the 50K/30.0 “marathon” of NaNoWriMo, you’re still a marathoner in my book.

Why? Because they’re similar in so many ways.

1. You must prepare.

Marathons aren’t run on race day. They’re run in the months (or years) of training that lead up to race day. The race itself is essentially the final exam after many hours of practice, and just like NaNoWriMo, it’s basically pass or fail.

There may be some people who can just waltz up to a marathon starting line and, without any training, run the race. These people are freaks of nature and we will not speak of them again. Similarly, there are people who can begin pecking away at their keyboards on November 1 without preparing at all and still finish a novel by November 30. These people are freaks of literature and should be applauded.

Nothing will guarantee that you’ll succeed in either endeavor, but preparation sure can help. If you’re running, preparation means miles—and lots of them. You can do tempo runs and hill work and fartlek training (it’s probably not what you think), but distance is the key. If you’re writing, you can do all sorts of things to get ready for your NaNoWriMo “marathon.” You can brainstorm, outline, “snowflake,” create character bios and write character monologues. You can work on developing good writing habits—after all, each novel you write is “training” for the next one. You can read extensively in your genre. All of this can help contribute to your success between the “starting gun” at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and the “finish line” at midnight on November 30.

By the way, for all the talk about “writing sprints” during NaNoWriMo, I’m not a big fan. Slow and steady finishes the race, whether you’re running or writing. Lots of practice actually helps you win.

2. You must begin with the end in mind.

When starting anything monumental, it’s critically important to have a goal. With NaNoWriMo, as with a marathon, you have a built-in baseline. If you don’t write 50,000 words or run 26.2 miles in the time allotted, you can’t count it as a “win.” In race terms, that’s a “DNF,” or “Did Not Finish.” As a point of pride, nobody wants a DNF on their record.

For my first marathon, I was just hoping to finish, but I had more ambitious goals my second time around. My target was to get close to a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, with the understanding that I would go for a BQ in my next full marathon. I actually missed that goal, but only because I overshot it and ran the race faster than expected. That’s the good kind of goal-missing, and it’s more likely if you’ve put in adequate preparation beforehand.

Five years ago, I just barely managed to complete my first NaNoWriMo, verifying my word count at 11:55 p.m. on November 30. I prepared a little better the next few years, setting and reaching higher goals each time. You never know what you can actually accomplish until you really put the effort in. And whether it’s a race medal or a pile of words to craft into a finished novel, the result can be very rewarding.

Just keep thinking about posting this to all your social media accounts on December 1:

NaNoWriMo-Winner

3. It’s all about pacing and consistent effort.

I run pretty fast for an old guy, but I  know my limits. I wanted to be realistic when I was game-planning St. George, so I picked a pace I knew I could handle … and then pushed it just a little further. The difference between training pace and race pace comes from adrenaline and willpower. It’s amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when they conspire to psych each other out.

The baseline target pace to win NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words over 30 days—and that’s if you write every single day. It’s a great idea to set your goal a little higher than that, and supplement your daily writing with some additional “marathon” writing sessions throughout the month. Then (and this is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo) make sure you stick to it.

If I don’t hit my goal on a particular day, I make up for it the next day. Or the next. You have to make it a priority, which almost always means giving up other things. I don’t watch TV during the month of November. I don’t read anyone else’s books. I even cut back on my mileage.

In addition to adrenaline and willpower, you’ll probably need caffeine. That’s a big component to success. Your mileage (of any kind) may vary, of course.

Here’s another trick: When you hit your daily goal, walk away. Literally stop in the middle of a sentence, close your file and shut off your computer. Stopping in the middle of things (in medias res, so to speak) gives you somewhere specific to pick up during your next writing session.

4. Sometimes, things go wonderfully wrong.

Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo multiple years knows that feeling of nervous excitement that comes on the day before the challenge begins. It’s very similar to what a marathoner feels right before a big race.

My goal for the 2017 St. George Marathon was to finish in 3:30:00, which would bring me within five minutes of a Boston Qualifying time. When I boarded the bus for the starting line at 4:30 in the morning, I was feeling great about this target. Then I realized I was missing my safety pins. Then I lost my phone. Seriously. I managed to get new pins and find my phone, but then my watch lost contact with the GPS satellites just minutes into the race. Because of this, I had a difficult time tracking my pace. The result, and I’m not making this up, was that I ran the first half of the race much faster than I’d planned.

That might sound like a good thing, but actually it was a real concern. I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to maintain that pace for the duration of the race. My worry was that I’d bonk at mile 18 and have to walk the rest of the way. A race-ending injury was also a real possibility.

We’ve all had writing projects that go pear-shaped. Anything can go wrong, but sometimes, when things go wrong they actually go right. Here are a few possibilities, and the obvious solutions:

  1. Problem: There’s “no there there”—you simply can’t squeeze enough words out of the story idea you picked. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. (There’s nothing in the rules that your 50,000 words have to form a single, coherent project.)
  2. Problem: You lose interest in your story. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. If you don’t have a new project at hand, free-write (using writing prompts, if necessary) until something catches your fancy.
  3. Problem: You get partway through your draft and realize your book is morphing into something completely different than what you planned. Solution: Go with it. In December, you can revise the earlier chapters to match the later ones.

5. You will feel self-doubt.

A I mentioned, when I hit the halfway mark on the St. George course I experienced a major moment of doubt. I must’ve looked a little lost, because a woman running beside looked over and asked me if I was doing okay. According to her race bib, her name was Bonnie. I admitted to her that I was going way faster than I had intended. Bonnie’s reply: “That’s a good thing, right?”

Maybe yes, maybe no. I told her I was worried I would crash and burn. Wisely, Bonnie asked me what my gut—and my body—were telling me. I did a quick self-check. I was feeling pretty good for having just run a pretty fast 13 miles. When I told her so, she looked over at me and said, “You got this. Go for it!” I’d never met this person before, but her little pep talk was the turning point for me in that race. I give Bonnie a lot of credit for helping me realize I could do what I’d set out to do.

Whether you’re doing your first NaNoWriMo or your tenth, at some point you’ll probably question whether you can finish or not. Find your Bonnie. Talk to a friend—writer or non-writer. Write your next 1,667 words and then treat yourself to ice cream. See a movie or get a pedicure. Then get back to your keyboard and finish your dang novel. You’ll thank yourself, afterwards.

One of the best T-shirts I saw at the St. George Marathon said “I can do hard things.” Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard. But you can do it.

6. The accomplishment is permanent.

st-george-medalThere’s no such thing as a “participation trophy” in competitive running. You don’t get anything just for showing up, but you often do get a medal for finishing. Similarly, you get exactly nothing for starting NaNoWriMo if you don’t finish it.

As with any competition, it’s all about the numbers. The registration cap for the 2017 St. George Marathon was 7,800 runners. About 6,000 made it to the starting line, and exactly 4,723 crossed the finish line under their own power, within the time limit.

A 26-year-old man from Lindon, UT, finished the race first, setting a new course record of 2:14:44. Yikes! The very last person to finish before the cutoff was a woman in her mid-40s from Idaho. She finished in 4,723rd place with a time of 7:27:29, and she was as deserving of his finisher’s medal as the guy who came in first. Both “won” in the sense that they ran the 26.2 miles in the required time frame. And nobody can ever take that away from them.

Numbers matter in NaNoWriMo, but mostly in determining who wins and who doesn’t. It makes no difference whether you write an hour a day or whether you produce those words in the first 24 hours (or even the last 24 hours). If you crank out 60K, 70K or even 100K words, you’re no more a winner than the person who writes exactly 50K. And once you’ve verified your words and received your winner’s certificate, it’s an accomplishment you can claim forever.

According to one estimate, about half a percent of the U.S. population (or around 1.6 million people) has finished a marathon. Believe it or not, being a NaNoWriMo finisher puts you into an even more exclusive club. According to the NaNoWriMo organization, roughly 384,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo last year, but only 34,000 won. (As far as I can figure, about 66 percent of participants were from the U.S.) The average win rate over the past five years is just 12.5 percent.

You can be part of that 12.5 percent. Don’t settle for being a NaNoWriMo starter. Be a finisher!

If you’re working furiously toward your 50,000 words, keep going! If you get stuck, I encourage you to put on your running shoes and go run a mile or two. Even if you don’t get the inspiration you need, you’ll be one or two miles closer to running your first marathon!

Fingers-vs-Feet

(For the record, I finished the 2017 St. George Marathon in 429th place out of 4,720, 40th in my age group, with a personal-record time of 3:16:57. I also qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon with a “cushion” of over eight minutes.)

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

The World Needs YOUR Words

Every author, published or not-yet-published, goes through spurts of wanting to quit.

I recently had one of those moments. It took a day or two of me thinking about how I’m not sure if I can complete the task ahead, or complete the revisions needed, and get the right words on paper.  I don’t have a fancy college degree (um…an associates in general studies) or anything else that makes me super qualified to write. I felt wholly inadequate.

I wallowed and complained a bit to fellow writing friends—because they get it.

And then I recommitted myself to my project. Why? Because what I need to say is important and needed. What I need to say, I will say in a way that no one else can. My words have value to others, but also to myself.

The World Needs YOUR Words.png

Yes, I happen to be writing to help survivors of sexual abuse, a topic that has been flooding our social media feeds lately, with survivors of sexual harassment or sexual assault posting “me too” to spread awareness. Sadly, it’s a topic that needs more voice because it’s so prevalent—for women, men, teens, and children. Survivors need healing. Survivors need people willing to believe them, support them, stand up for them, and who know how to help them. We all need to stand unified against perpetrators and put out a solid message that it’s not OK and sexual abuse of any kind will not be tolerated.

What is your message?

What words do you have that will help others? How will your words spread light in the darkness? What words will you use to give hope to someone in despair? How can your words bring more compassion and empathy?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve read a book—fiction or nonfiction—that has put a piece of my own life in better perspective because of something an author wrote. Or how many times I’ve cried tears onto pages because it felt like someone truly understood some of the hell I’ve lived through. Or how often I learn something about myself because the words in the book reflect back to me a truth I’ve almost missed. Or how deeply I’ve been impacted by words—words that wouldn’t be there if the author had decided to succumb and quit.

Your words have power. They can lift the downtrodden, heal the broken, mend a divide, and soften a hard heart. Your words can bring people, even the world, together with understanding and compassion.

The world needs your words. The world needs your light.

So don’t quit even when it feels too hard to keep writing. Don’t quit even when the inner critic yells the loudest. Don’t quit—because you have words you haven’t spoken yet that the world needs to hear.

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576A6469Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles—family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Let’s Stop The Writerly Blame Game

notebook

Settle down, my friends. Pull up a chair. Or a couch. Or a bed. Or sprawl on the floor, if that’s your preference. But get comfortable, because today we’re going to be talking about some hard truths.

Many, many times in the last few months, I’ve heard variations of the same two themes coming out of the mouths of aspiring writers. The first type of comment goes like this: It’s really no use querying an agent. Or querying this agent. Or trying to get traditionally published at all. After all, statistically only a tiny percentage of writers ever get an agent anyway. 

The second type of comment is similar: I’ve been querying, but I just keep getting rejected. I think it’s because agents only want the same old drivel. They don’t care about originality. This comment comes in an endless array of specifics and individualizations, but the heart of the justification is always the same: Those agents just don’t see what a good thing I’ve got going. They don’t recognize my genius. Often, the writer who makes comments like this is also resistant to the idea of revising or rewriting their book, feeling that that would be pandering to somebody else’s tastes in order to get an agent.

And you know what? I totally get it. Let me give you a little picture of my own query history.

Just over three years ago, I started querying a fairytale retelling. It was the third book I’d written but the first I’d queried, and I had stars in my eyes. I’d revised the book a bit, my critique partners had told me that it was Newbery Award material, and I was confident that I’d find an agent who wanted to snap that book up right away. Excitedly, I started live-pitching at conferences and sending out queries. I submitted to the Pitch Wars contest.

The crickets were deafening.

The sparse bits of feedback I got, from both agents and contest mentors, were all the same: It’s not original enough. There’s no place in the market for it. I was stung. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book! I’d given it my all! Couldn’t those agents recognize the genius that was in front of them? Of course, I comforted myself, the stats show that hardly anybody who queries actually lands an agent. The agents are all just too busy to see how big my book could go.

I’ve written before about the watershed moment that happened that autumn, the moment that gave me the courage to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep working. Sadder but wiser, I turned my attention to my fourth novel. I spent months revising and polishing it, and then dove in again: live pitching, querying, contest entering. This time, things started out much more promisingly. I got lots of agent requests right off the bat, and for several months I was certain that that would be the book to get me an agent. When those requests turned into rejection after rejection after rejection, I found myself thinking again: It’s just because it’s not a Twilight or Hunger Games readalike. Can’t those agents recognize a good thing when they see it? 

Shelving that book was hard. It’s still the book of my heart, and saying a temporary goodbye to it was gut-wrenching. It was so, so easy to place the blame on anything else: the industry. The agents. The market.

This story has a happy ending: After going through a true dark night of the soul, I once again picked myself up, finished the manuscript I was drafting, and queried it. Within weeks, I had multiple agent offers for that book. I signed with my fantastic agent a month after sending my first query. Next year, that book will be my debut novel with HarperCollins Children’s.

What is my point in sharing this story? It’s because I get so frustrated, so saddened, to hear writer after writer utter self-defeating words before they’ve even really given querying and submission a college try. Querying is hard work. It is grueling, stressful, and involves a lot of rejection. But so, too, does writing as a career. No matter what path to publication you end up taking, there will be rejection, stress, and insecurity. As a traditionally-published debut author, I’m already beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from knowing that next summer, people will pick up my book… and some won’t like it. Some will give it bad reviews on Amazon. Even more terrifying, the vast majority of people will probably never be remotely interested in my book. And the stakes are high: How readers respond to my debut will, in large part, determine the path my future career takes.

Self-publishing is the same. While you get to skip the rejections from agents and editors, indie publishing is still rife with rejection and angst. The bottom line is this: If you want to be a writer, you cannot escape rejection.

And while shrouding yourself in an armor made of justifications is the natural response to the pain of being rejected, it’s also an ultimately unhelpful strategy. To be a writer is, by its very nature, to allow yourself to become vulnerable. What is more raw than the feeling of pouring your heart into words and then seeing somebody dislike (or—even worse—not care about) those words? That vulnerability is part and parcel of a writing career—and the sooner you can accept and lean into it, the more resilient and strong your writer heart will become.

Yes, it’s hard to be rejected. Yes, it’s hard to stomach the thought that the problem might lie with our book—those words that poured straight from our heart—and not with the agent, the publisher, the establishment. And yes, the statistics for the number of querying writers are grim. But you know what? In this industry, persistence, humility, and a willingness to start over and try again pay off. It took me three different books, more than 120 queries, and a whole lot of fresh starts and trying new things to land an agent and a book deal—but I did it. My agent has taken on a grand total of three clients in the last two years, including me. Based on the number of queries she generally receives, there was a .03% chance that I would have landed an offer. And yet I did.

And you, dear friend? I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to beat the odds. I have faith in your ability to adapt, to learn, and to use the tools available to you to bring your craft to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve your writerly dreams.

But trust me when I say that the first step to achieving those dreams is this: Take a deep breath. Let go of all the reasons you have for why agents or editors aren’t seeing what you see in your book. And get ready to work.

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.