Chugging through the Stages of a Writing Career

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how a writer progresses from the beginning stages of a career to ultimately becoming a published author (and beyond.) A few months ago, I attended an SCBWI conference in Asilomar (Monterey, CA, to be specific) and met many writers, most of them pre-published. So many of my writing buddies  seemed to be stuck in a self-proclaimed rut, whether creative-based or psychological.

This comes from thinking too much and acting too little

I thought about the steps that I went through on the very long journey to becoming published. Here is my experience, and what I eventually learned to overcome the obstacles to moving on to the next stage:

Stage 1: As a beginning writer, I started several projects, brimming with confidence in my abilities. Downfall: I didn’t finish any one project. I got to a certain point, then I set aside the project and began working on another idea that “spoke to me” more. A good response: Force yourself to work through the (insert: boredom, frustration, low self-esteem, lack of ideas, etc.) and finish what you start. Meanwhile, start reading every book in your genre that you can, while analyzing what makes them work or not. As soon as you finish your first project, begin the second one.

Stage 2: So now I had one complete project. I was surprised to find that I had to write three or four books before I was competent enough to land an agent. Sadly, this was the point when I began to realize that writing wasn’t as easy as I first thought. The Downfall: It’s hard to be starting on book three, feeling like you’re getting nowhere. You may be worried that no one will ever see your work. A good response: Keep plugging away. Go to conferences whenever possible. Join a critique group if you haven’t by now; they’re invaluable in helping you improve your writing skills. Revise, revise, then revise some more.

Stage 3: I was finally able to start querying agents. Downfall: At first, I got rejection form letters, and in some cases, no response at all. It was tempting to burrow myself back into the revision cave and stop sending out letters. A good response: Send four queries out at a time, and when you get one rejection, refer back to your list of acceptable agents, then send out one more within ten hours. Be a robot! After about six rejections with feedback, you can evaluate if you need to revise. If you want to progress out of this stage quickly, you must become a steam engine, chugging toward success in a steady way, regardless of insecurities. (Easier said then done, I know.) But this is what I eventually realized, and it did result in getting my first agent.

Become a robot to avoid analysis paralysis

Stage 4: Hey, I wasn’t getting one-line rejection letters from agents anymore. They were longer, more personal. Downfall: Darn it, it’s still a rejection, and because the comments are more specific, you take it to mean your writing sucks. Or, you revise your manuscript to address one agent’s feedback, without evaluating if you agree with his or her assessment or not, or without waiting for more feedback to come in before you crawl back into the revision cave. A good response: Wait for several letters with feedback, then compile comments in common before revising. Don’t get so excited by an agent’s attention that you are willing to turn your coming of age middle grade into a psychological YA thriller. Always be true to your own gut.

Stage 5: I got an agent! Downfall: Don’t make a desperate move. You wouldn’t marry the first person who called you beautiful, would you? If you aren’t sure you LOVE this agent, hold off. I wish I had done this. As a result of not doing this, I had to go through two agents before I found THE ONE. A good response: Have faith that if one agent wants you, someone else will, too. Research your prospective agent before signing. A bad agent can waste years of your career.

Stage 6: My agent is sending out my stuff on submission! Hallelujah! Downfall: You think this means that someone will make you a huge book deal within three or four weeks. A good response: Your agent believes in you, and that should help you get through the wait, but it typically takes awhile to find the right editor for a project. While you wait, get busy on another project. Rejections occur at every stage.

Stage 6.5: (Courtesy of Natalie Dias Lorenzi who defined this very real and hard stage.) My agent and I decide to take my book off submission to revise yet again. I was told to make LEAGUE darker, to define motivations, to make the lead guy much scarier, while still appealing. Ah, nothing too major. Downfall: This one feel discouraging. Just when you thought it was done, you’re told to rewrite again. Making matters worse, it’s now no longer on submission at all. You begin to feel like a yo yo, if you hadn’t before.

Stage 7: My book is going to acquisitions! Downfall: This is a stellar step forward but not necessarily assurance of getting published. Acquisitions involve a lot more than just the editor’s feelings about your project. Also, there is a very good chance that the editor will ask for yet another revision before taking it all the way. A good response: Be excited, but realistic. Know that real live publishers see something in your manuscript, so if they don’t buy it, someone else will. You can be sure now that you have a saleable project.

Stage 8: They say yes!!!! Downfall: None! A good response: Celebrate! Go out to dinner. Take your moment and enjoy it.

Keep working at it and it will happen!

So which stage are you in? Now look at how far you’ve come. Not so hopeless, is it? As long as you’re improving your craft and not letting natural neurosis get in the way of progression, you will find forward momentum. If you find yourself stuck in any one stage for more than a couple of years, re-evaluate what you are doing to help or hinder your career. The best Response: Strive to write four hours a day, go to conferences, share your work, read books in your genre, and get as many critiques as you can. Then read the Dr. Suess classic, “OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!”

To paraphrase from the film Field of Dreams, “If you work at it, they will come.” And that’s my 20 cents for the day.

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23 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Anxiety, craft~writing, Editing and Revising, rejection and success

23 responses to “Chugging through the Stages of a Writing Career

  1. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Great post, Lisa! I’ll add another stage–Stage 6.5–that I hadn’t been expecting. When Stage 6 stretched on way past what I’d been hoping for, I then hit Stage 6.5, where I had to pull the manuscript from submission and revise (rewrite, actually). That stage feels pretty hopeless, because there’s no chance of getting any offers because you have nothing on submission, and you’re diving back into a manuscript that you’ve already spent eons working on, and there’s no guarantee that it’ll pan out. But when it does, it makes Stages 7 and 8 all the sweeter. 🙂

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  2. I can’t tell you how much I love this post. Thanks for your clear-headed advice.

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  3. Reblogged this on A Writer's Notepad and commented:
    This is a wonderful, concise analysis and has great practical advice! Thanks L.B. Schulman and EMU’s Debuts!

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  4. L.B. Schulman

    Thanks, Maryanne and Natalie! Nat, you are so right. I can’t believe I missed that one and now want to go put it in. Hey, I guess I can do that! 🙂 OK, you and that stage is going in there in a minute. Maryanne, thanks also for the retweet. i went to your site and got caught up in it. (Is your home OK? What a horrible, destructive fire.) Thanks for the comments, guys.

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  5. This is such a great post, L. B., it belongs in a book on writing–realistic, informative, and encouraging. And I need to cycle back through the “they’re taking it to acquisitions” stage periodically, since published writers, too, get rejections.

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    • L.B. Schulman

      Thanks, Cynthia. Wasn’t there a day, long ago, when it was so much easier to get published again once you were with a publishing house? It seems it was much simpler for my grandfather. (He’s Darrell Huff, and he wrote a book in 1954 that’s still in print called HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS!)

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      • Great post, Lisa, and oh so right on, all the way through.Also, in an “It’s a small-world” moment… I can’t believe your grandfather is Darrell Huff! I’m using his book heavily in a book I am writing (for kids) _right now_. o_O

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  6. Stage 9: Repeat stages 6,7, and 8 many times. Even after signing with an agent and selling your first (or second) book, rejection’s still part of the game (but the good news is it doesn’t hurt as much). Writing the next book after a sale can be daunting; it can feel like there’s more riding on book 2 than on book 1. Just follow Lisa’s advice in step 8 (finetune your work, keep writing) and you’ll keep moving forward.

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  7. L.B. Schulman

    Good point, Ruth, and it’s so true! I have decided to keep updating this post as these great comments come in. So by the end of the day there might be a lot of fractional stages, but I think it will just get more useful as the day rolls on, thanks to everyone’s good comments.

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  8. Great post, Lisa. I’m reposting the link on my Creative Chaos annajboll.wordpress.com blog too. Cheers.

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  9. Pingback: Member Monday: Stages of writing ala L.B. Schulman | annajboll

  10. Pingback: Anna Boll: Member Monday: Stages of writing ala L.B. Schulman « NESCBWI Kidlit Reblogger

  11. L.B. Schulman

    Laurie, REALLY? That is too strange!!!!!! But very cool.

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  12. Still at 6.5. Still at 6.5. Still at 6.5. This is getting old. But hey, I might have reached 6.5.1 today.

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  13. Perfectly timed, insightful post. LOVE!

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  14. Great post. It’s a journey, and whether we’re positive or negative at all the stages will determine how well the journey goes.

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  15. tinamcho

    Excellent post! I’m saving this in my file! Thanks for sharing!

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  16. Pingback: Stages 2, or, That Part When Things Get Kinda Nuts | EMU's Debuts

  17. readatouille

    Great post. I’m at 6.5–thanks for adding it. 🙂

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  18. LISA! This is brilliant! I love how you structured each stage with: “Hallelujah! Downfall: and a Good Repsonse.” Really well done!

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    • L.B. Schulman

      Thanks, Lynda. I really hope it encourages people to keep on writing. This business takes a long time to cultivate. (I was really on the slow track.)

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  19. Thanks for sharing these stages, Lisa, along with the downfalls and good responses! This came at a good time for me. I’ve spent the last few years on step 6.5 with a project, but it just moved to the point of being back out on submission. Naturally, I’m hoping for steps 7 and 8 as a part of my Stage 9, but there are never any guarantees.

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