A few weeks ago, in the third installment of my “Back to Basics” series, I posted about maintaining self-confidence and touched on some of the difficulties we encounter as writers. I focused more on the day-to-day struggles of process than I did on market-related issues, and when I did deal with the business side of things, I did so in the most cursory of ways, vowing to return to the subject the following week. I didn’t. In the meantime though, Stuart offered this incisive, honest post on defining success.
I thought that I would build on Stuart’s post a bit because recognizing our successes and dealing with our “failures” is probably the most difficult and most important thing that we writers have to do. And I’d like to begin by sharing three brief observations that at first blush will seem to have nothing to do with writing.
Right now, a musical group here in my little town is competing for a place in the band lineup for the Bonnaroo Music Festival in nearby Manchester, Tennessee. The group is called The Culprits (and if you’d like to hear a sample of their music and support their efforts, please go here) and it consists of three young men from our local high school. I’ve known these kids since they were toddlers; they’re friends of my daughters. They have been playing together for years now. They started out doing local gigs, and have now cut a cd and performed throughout the Southeast. The chance to play at Bonnaroo would be their biggest break by far. They were one of literally hundreds of bands vying for a place in the festival (two bands will be chosen). They made one cut, and then another, and are now one of twenty groups in position to win. At this writing, they are ranked fourth. Still, the odds of them being chosen remain pretty steep. But my question is this: Given how far they’ve come, even if they don’t get one of those two spots, can anyone really say that they’ve failed?
My niece, whom I adore, is a senior in high school this year, and like so many high school seniors (including Misty’s son) she has spent the past half a year filling out college applications and, worse, enduring the difficult and emotionally taxing wait for admissions responses. She did not play it safe with her applications — she applied to some truly outstanding schools. The results when they came in were terrific. She was accepted into nine colleges, including some of the finest in the country (kids today apply to far more colleges than my cohort did when we were in high school, but that’s beside the point). She was also rejected by a handful of the top schools — I suppose you could say that the best of the best didn’t take her. As I say, the schools she got into are fantastic. But the rejections hurt, and she was devastated by the results. And yet, next fall she will be attending a school that most kids (including the thousands who applied and didn’t get in) would have given anything to attend. So, can we say that she failed?
One final point: In Ed’s Saturday post, he showed us the difference between two query letters, one which didn’t quite work for him, and one which did. But notice how he defined the success of that second letter: ” The second letter did much better, garnering 13 requests out of about 30 sent.” That’s a success rate of about 43%, and Ed is absolutely right — that’s a great response to query letters. But still that letter “failed” more often than it “succeeded.”
Rejection is a way of life for a writer. This is why I made the point in my post on self-confidence that we need to look at the submission-rejection-resubmission process as a negotiation, as a reference point for further work on the submitted piece rather than as a verdict. In other words, we need to look at rejections as saying “This piece isn’t there yet,” as opposed to “This piece sucks and so do I.” The thing is, that’s incredibly hard to do, for all of us: aspiring writers and established professionals alike. Stuart’s post on Friday was so good in part because he was challenging us (and himself) to gauge success and career progress in ways that our culture does not necessarily reinforce. If I look at my career, and I judge what I’ve done based upon my annual income (which fluctuates pretty widely year-to-year from “Not too bad” to “Negligible” and back again) I am forced to concluded that I have not been a “success.” That’s why we look at publication records, reviews, awards, etc. That’s also why when we talk about what we do, we find that there is a broad gap in understanding between those of us who write and people who don’t. When people learn that I am a professional writer, that I have published a dozen books including a movie novelization, they assume that I must be making a lot of money. Because, they see in what I’ve done someone who has “succeeded” and who must therefore conform to what they believe “success” looks like.
And this starts to get me to the point of this post, and at the same time it brings me back around to Stuart’s post as well. Because, like nearly all artists, we writers do not make a lot of money, we therefore we have to define success differently. In the same way, because rejection is so pervasive in what we do, we need to define even that aspect of our performance differently as well. What’s your favorite sport? Baseball? If your favorite player is hitting .300, he’s doing pretty well by major league standards. Still that means he fails seven times out of ten. Basketball? If a player is shooting 50% from the field that’s very good. 75% is the general standard from the foul line. A football quarterback needs to complete at least 60% of his passes to be considered an accurate thrower. Different sports, different tasks, lead to different standards of success. Edmund was happy with a 43% positive response rate to his query letter. He’ll be the first one to tell you that a successful query is merely the first step to getting an agent or an editor. Next he hopes an agent will say “Yes, I want to represent you.” So what if the submissions that follow up on the query letter enjoy 30% success — in other words, what if they bat .300? Well, that’s pretty good, too. Darn good, actually, considering that most of us would be happy if just one reputable agent would agree to represent us. But look at what we’ve got now. Those original 30 queries were winnowed to 43%, and then that total was winnowed again to 30%, for a grand total of four queries that have yielded what most of us would call “success.” Overall, that’s a 13% success rate, and that’s being pretty optimistic.
As writers, we need to redefine not only success, but also failure. That sounds like a tautology, but really it’s not. We need to be able to say that four good responses out of 30 is great. We need to be able to say that even if we’ve had a story rejected 15 times, an acceptance from a 16th editor makes that story a success. Sure, we’re batting .060, but this isn’t baseball, and in our field success and failure are defined on their own terms. Not only that, but just as a baseball player sometimes needs to look at an unsuccessful at bat and say “that was a productive out — I advanced a runner, or knocked in a run, or kept us out of a double play” we writers have to learn to recognize “good rejections.” This is why you’ll hear professionals say all that time that if you had a book or story rejected, but the rejection came with a few scrawled words in a margin, or better still, a hand written or personal note from the editor, that’s a fantastic rejection. It’s a productive out. I’ll go even further with that. If you’ve never submitted work before then ANY rejection is a good rejection, because it means that you’re finally submitting your work, making a go of doing this professionally. And that is an accomplishment. Getting your first rejection ought to be a badge of honor.
The odds of selling a first novel are about the odds of The Culprits being chosen for Bonnaroo. We start with hundreds who hope to sell a novel to Tor or Roc or Penguin, and we need to keep in mind that the production schedules for these houses, and all the others, are so filled with the books of writers who are already established that there are only a few slots open. Two bands out of several hundred; two books out of hundreds as well. Rejection is the default, it is a fundamental part of being an author. One sale of a novel does not guarantee additional sales. Neither does twelve; trust me on this. Every one of us has been rejected multiple times and will be again. Thieftaker was rejected several times and went through a couple of incarnations before I finally placed it, and at the time I had already published eleven novels. Faith has been writing for twenty years, and finally became a NYT bestseller this year. How many stories do we hear all the time about the writer who couldn’t sell her book, who was rejected again and again, only to sell it at last and have it become a huge hit? Does the name J.K. Rowling ring a bell?
But even that is beside the point. Because I’m not telling you that if you keep on trying, you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling. You won’t be. Neither will I. I’m telling you, just as Stuart did on Friday, that if you’re going to write, you have to think differently about how you gauge the results of your hard work. Rejection is integral to the process. It helps us determine what works and what doesn’t. It reminds us that we are not ready, that our book isn’t quite there yet. And it allows us to appreciate even more that one acceptance that makes all the rejections worthwhile. Because success, as Dave Fortier (New Guy Dave) put so well in his comment, is not always represented by a check. It is finishing a chapter, finishing a novel, completing revisions, getting great feedback from your beta readers. It is sending out that first novel or story to an editor or agent. And yes, hopefully at some point, success is selling the book or story to a publisher. That sale won’t make us rich, it won’t make the next book we submit a sure thing. But it feels fantastic just the same. And you can’t put a price on that.David B. Coe