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.
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.
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.
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.