Defining (or re-defining) Success

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How do you stay motivated to write when you keep sending out query letters, manuscripts or chapter submissions and getting back form rejections or radio silence?

Let’s take a step back and look at how you currently define “success”. Is an actual publishing contract or agent representation the only way you’ll feel successful as a writer? If so, you’re not alone, this is a very universal goal among writers at any stage. But your unfailing ambition and persistence could be preventing other smaller (and maybe more likely) successes.

Success comes in large and small packages. How it’s defined is deeply personal…and you can change your definition anytime. I recently received an un-rejection by a reputable literary agent in a personalized (not form) email, and to me this felt like my manuscript sample had caught enough of their attention to ascend to a senior editor. Though that editor ultimately passed, they included a note that my story sounded intriguing and that they liked my character’s voice. I defined this response as success (a small one, yes). But if you spend all your time and energy trying to catch big, trophy fish, your artistic heart might starve in the process. In the same way that we take vitamins to supplement the nutrients we don’t get in our diet, a steady feed of small successes will keep you inspired through the process and help you to keep writing!

Aim high; aim low. Of course continuing to target major New York literary agents, as well as publishers directly, is the best chance of getting your work seen by the industry’s primary decision-makers. But with so many major publishers requiring submissions only through agents, you can boost your chances of visibility by including smaller, independent publishers, as well as newer literary agents who are just starting to build their list of clients. New agents are more likely to take a chance on a new literary voice than an established agent. Or if print publishing isn’t your only desire, you might consider a strictly-digital ePublisher. Certain ePublishers, such as Witness Impulse (a division of William Morris) balances their lack of offset printing with massive distribution and huge potential visibility.

Due diligence. Regardless of who you send your work to, keep your submission strategy simple. Go to the publisher’s or agent’s website and read their submissions guidelines, their specific directions, and follow them. Edit your query letter and your manuscript sample right before you send it. Yes, even though you’ve edited it a hundred times already. Resist the urge to include any additional content that wasn’t specifically requested in the submission guidelines. Keep track of your submission with names, dates and results.

Personalize. In the same way that us writers hate getting form-rejections, acquisition editors and literary agents have repeatedly reported that same complaint. An agent doesn’t want to feel like a number – like you’re paging through the Literary Marketplace and mass-mailing the same generic package to everyone. And I’m by no means knocking mass-mailing. I’m saying it’s advantageous to personalize a submission as a means of making an agent or editor feel…well…special. If you haven’t met the agent or publisher you’re querying, research them, learn something about them. Educate yourself about what books they love, where they’re from, what inspires them. Find a conference where they’re speaking and be there. Don’t fake a connection – make one.

Tactics. Here are a few ways to keep focused on your ultimate goal of landing a publishing contract while keeping your mind sharp, opportunities open, and muse fed:

  • You make direct contact (and get a direct response) from a literary agent via Twitter inviting you to submit
  • You learn of a new agent in New York who’s seeking manuscripts in your genre and you send them a query
  • A traditional publisher has now opened submissions directly to authors instead of only through an agent
  • You send a query letter and your recipient asks to see a partial of your manuscript (yeah, baby!)
  • You write a short story and get it published in a literary journal. If you can boost your publishing creds while finding a book publisher, all the better. The same goes for publishing a book review, or being asked to be a guest blogger on a writing blog
  • On your submission tracking list, create a separate section for Successes and list them separately, in bold, in a different color ink to call them out.

One final tip: not if but WHEN you do connect with a literary agent or book publisher who offers you a contract, check out Preditors and Editors to vet them first, read about their reputation, their contract, and feedback from other writers.

How do YOU define success in your writing career? Do you have other ways of keeping yourself inspired and motivated on the path towards publication? Please share your comments with me here, and thanks for reading!

 

 

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How do you deal with rejection letters?

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If you’re a serious writer who’s either published or working to get published, you’re not new to the dreaded rejection letter. They’re as ubiquitous to publishing as milk to the coffee industry. What happens when you get one of these in the mail?

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Do they cause depression?

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Rebellion?

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Anger?

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For some highly enlightened souls, rejection letters cause them to revise their manuscript and even create a new story twist or plotline that they hadn’t thought of before.

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Some truths about literary rejection letters:

  •  They are a sign of courage that you were willing to write something worthy of market value, polish and perfect it to industry standards, and put it before someone else’s eyes to be judged. Don’t discount this aspect, it means something.
  •  They are unbelievably common among all of our industry peers – from John Grisham and Dan Brown to J.K. Rowling. Depending on what you write and which market niche you’re approaching, the odds of getting a query or manuscript accepted by either a publisher or agent are unmistakably low.
  •  It’s not personal. Unlike relationship rejection, literary rejections are solely based on your manuscript and project, not you as a person. When you can think of it in those terms, doesn’t it become a bit more business-like, impersonal, even clinical?
  • They don’t mean you’ll never get published – just that it hasn’t happened YET.

Picture yourself at a job interview. You’re highly skilled in your field, have some polished work samples and business references with you, but you somehow don’t make it to that second interview. Why? There could be a thousand reasons, and mostly they’re all because you and your skills just simply aren’t the right match for the position. This mismatch concept holds true in the literary industry as well. You’re sending your unique manuscript to a complete stranger and hoping your project and vision will track with what the agent or publisher is seeking for their client list.

Let’s step back a moment and take a look at this literary agent. And let’s assume you’ve done your research and confirmed that this particular agent is interested in acquiring manuscripts within your genre and they’re considering taking on new clients. And let’s say you’ve worked with an industry mentor to perfect your query letter, you have your manuscript formatted perfectly, and have gone through three editing rounds to fix any grammatical errors. The thing is, even if all these bases are covered, there are still lots of other variables that can influence whether an agent selects your manuscript over someone else’s. Like what?

  • Gender – Not you, your protagonist. The agent might be looking for fiction with a strong female protagonist and yours is male.
  • Voice – They could be looking for third person POV and yours is first person.
  • Length – Your manuscript could be too long or short for the existing market of your genre.
  • Subject matter – Some agents are seeking stories consumable by a wide audience. So if your book has a super edgy theme and touches controversial topics, they might opt to pass.
  • New or published writer – Some agents are eager to hear from fresh industry voices; others only want to work with established and previously published authors.
  • Setting – Some want domestic stories, yours might take place in Paris.

And these are just a few! I know, it’s enough to make you go insane. But you’re not expected to mold your manuscript to every single thing a potential agent or publisher could possibly ever want. The platitudes are true – write what you love. The good news is that there are lots of publishers and literary agents available in every genre, more every day, and lots of them are looking for new writers. Where are they? Check here.

Too often, an agent will reject a manuscript because it lacks the specific WOW factor they were looking for. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like it and that it’s not good. Because the industry landscape has changed so drastically in the past few years, they’re forced to be even more selective with the types of projects they invest in. In other words, if an agent can’t immediately see the potential for revenue in your book, they’re likely to pass even if they otherwise like your story, your writing, and everything about you. Money isn’t all that matters, but it definitely matters.

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Emotional Intelligence

Rejection letters are a great reminder that we must constantly keep our thoughts on the right track and stay in a positive and inspired space when it comes to writing. DON’T wallpaper your office with rejection letters! The last things we need as writers are negative reminders. Observe your reaction to your last rejection letter. Did you use it as fuel to grow deeper into your craft and commitment to success? If not, it’s okay, there’s time to work on this. And it IS work and no one’s more worthy of that work, time and energy than you are. For more reading on creative resilience, check out this great article from Lifehacker.

Focus on Inspiration

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What kinds of books and writing continue to inspire you? This is the fodder for your creative expression and it must be positioned on a pedestal because it’s the most important aspect of your writing relationship. You see beauty around you, kindness, amazing human stories. Whatever it is that drives you to your keyboard or your journal, hold that in your heart as your primary focus. Post pictures of that inspiration in your writing space, your desktop, as reminders of what motivates you and what drives you to succeed over and over despite the odds.

Self-Publishing

The publishing industry has shrunk, or grown, depending on your perspective. And the changes are vast. 31% of all e-book sales are from self-published authors. Why do some writers turn to self-publishing as an option? There are lots of advantages, such as royalties. The royalties are typically way higher than traditional publishers (though no advance), and it’s a super quick turnaround to see your work in print (generally 30 days as opposed to 15 months). As you’re not working with a literary agent to sell your manuscript, there’s no middle man to take a 15% cut off your royalties when they start coming in. But there are offsets, too. Self-publishing can be expensive ($500 – $5000 per book), and there’s a lot more work you’ll need to do to push your book into the commercial marketplace, like arrange for distribution, marketing, advertising, editing, cover art, and layout.

Check out these famous, best-selling books and authors that were initially rejected by (in some cases, many) publishers or agents:

  •  J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  •  Jack Canfield for Chicken Soup for the Soul
  •  C.S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia
  •  Dan Brown for The Da Vinci Code
  •  J.D. Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye
  •  Margaret Mitchell for Gone With the Wind
  •  Alice Walker for The Color Purple

There’s more here

What does this tell you? You’re in good company for one thing. Rejections give us an opportunity to re-examine what we’re doing…any why. If making money is why you write, self-publishing could be a great option for you. If you’re a compulsive storyteller hell bent on finding a traditional publisher or agent, then sink your teeth into that path and persevere and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

There are many forms of success – how do you measure yours and what’s your benchmark? If you’re new to the writing path, maybe finishing a novel is a worthy pursuit right now, or you might want to publish 5 books a year, or earn enough to quit your day job. A stack of rejection letters means you’re engaged, working, and investing time and energy in your success and future. Don’t let them derail you; instead use them as a necessary tool of the trade.

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What are your rejection war stories, or successes that started as rejection letters? Please share!

Inside Voice

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Did you choose your protagonist or did they choose you? If you’ve got a novel in-progress, how did you come up with your main character? Sometimes mine come to me while driving, when my brain is active but my creativity is dormant. I also get name ideas from watching movie credits, and sometimes I hear a name so extraordinary that the evolution of the character and their attributes unfolds on its own. Kermitt Rictose, who was a stunt person in one of the umpteen Die Hard movies. What kind of character would emerge from a name like that? An older gentleman, affluent, entrepreneur, lives at the top of a hill in a gray, monolithic house. Too stereotyped? Okay, he’s a rock singer living on a houseboat and mows lawns for a living.  Kermitt the go-getter.

Tell me everything you know about your current protagonist. I’m sure you know their physical attributes, how they look, dress, walk. But do you also know what they love, what they loathe, and what they fear? What keeps them up nights, and what drives their obsessions? If you don’t know, here are a couple of ideas.

You could just…ask them. That’s right – create a sort of back and forth interview of your character, asking them about their favorite foods, favorite color, the car they drive. It’s more challenging than you think, because it takes not only creativity but courage to really make this exercise work. What you’re doing is tuning your senses inward and bringing the act of listening to a new level. I find it takes a certain willingness to surrender before your character really starts talking to you. And they will, and when they do, you’d better be listening. No, there’s no medication that can be prescribed for this affliction. It’s called creativity and there is no cure.

Another way is by mapping your characters to actual film stars.

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I find that writing realistic dialogue requires me to not only know my protag’s inner and outer personalities, but also how they express themselves and interact with other people. So I model them after an actual actor whom I’ve seen in films. In the book I just finished writing, I modeled my homicide detective after actor Timothy Hutton in his latest series, Leverage.

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I’ve been watching Hutton since 1985’s The Falcon and The Snowman, where he portrayed an unlikely 19 year old American spy. And after twenty plus years of movie fandom, I feel like I know him. I’ve watched and studied how he behaves, reacts, his expressions, body language, and from that rich dataset I can infer how he would talk to his departmental underlings, the Medical Examiner, and my protagonist.

Sometimes I print photos of all my celebrity-mapped characters and tape them around my monitor, where they serve as a sort of visual Greek chorus. Other times, I tack them to my white board all in a cluster. The idea is to know and study these people, constantly. And even if they’re imaginary, they must at least be real to you. Having a face to build upon makes them broader than one-dimensional. For me, it helps bring them to life.

When it comes to your personal writing practice, you are the pilot and, generally speaking, there is no co-pilot. So you can do whatever you want, draw on any tricks of the trade, and don’t be afraid to go deep with your characters, even if it means, on occasion, talking to yourself.