Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I’m glad no one told me….

This past few weeks, I’ve posted a few perhaps-too-brutally-honest comments and/or answers to questions on my local RWA Chapter’s e-loop -- Toronto Romance Writers. Yesterday, something dawned on me. In my attempts to be honest… To share what I’d learned about the industry over the past four years – lots of it depressing – I may have inadvertently discouraged some newer members of our group. Writers who still have visions of being plucked from slush piles dancing in their heads. Writers who think self-publishing will bring them fame and fortune (or even satisfaction). (Okay, these things happen… People win lotteries, too.)

I didn’t/don't mean to be discouraging… If I was, I’m very, very sorry.

And it got me thinking…

I’m glad no one told me how hard getting published would be, because if I’d known, I might not have started. (Not a risk taker by nature… my first career was in accounting and even though I realized I was going to hate it in my first year of
University… I didn’t actually stop doing it until I was so burned out and depressed I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.)

Time to be honest with myself. People did tell me how hard getting published would be, but I didn’t completely believe them. I started out on this whole novel writing journey (did I just use that heinous reality TV word, “journey”?) by taking a class at
Ryerson University. And the class was good. And the instructor told us it would be hard… And told us how little writing actually paid for most published authors…

But… I somehow didn’t think this bad news applied to me. Was I arrogant? Probably. But I had reasons:
  1. I’d been told I had talent -- high school English teacher, creative writing professor at UC Berkeley, my mommy. (I didn’t know at the time that 90% of us trying to do this have similar stories of encouragement to tell…)

  2. I know I’m pretty smart – again, lots of smart people doing this… Who knew? (by the way the media often portrays authors of women's fiction, it's easy to be mislead)

  3. I am lucky. (When I look at my life, I’ve always been pretty lucky.)


So, when I heard that most people complete several manuscripts before they sell, but that some writers actually sell their first book – I just assumed I’d fit into group two. I was going to sell my first book and it would be a huge smash and I’d be on my way to earning a modest living from writing within a year – 18 months tops. I gave myself 2 years to be safe. (remember the not-a-risk-taker confession?) I had a plan.

In May 2002, I simultaneously started taking the novel-writing course and actually writing my first novel, a series romance aimed at no particular series (those of you in-the-know are seeing the red flags already!). In February 2003, about one-third – maybe halfway? – into the book, I selected a line at
Harlequin to target. How? Did I do research on the lines? Read lots of them? No... I picked it solely because an editor from that line was attending a TRW meeting and was willing to hear pitches.

I pitched. She asked for chapters. Yippee! I was on my way to the big time. I pushed through and finished my manuscript in March or April 2003, so that it would be ready to go when the editor (without a doubt) called to beg me for the full manuscript. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t. :-(

But she did give me some good feedback and criticism, so I decided to revise… After messing around with that opus for another 6 months or so, and submitting it to another line at Harlequin (I changed my title… I’m a very bad girl) I finally figured out how to just let it go.

My writing was getting better. I was pushing myself. Attending workshops and conferences. Reading books on craft. Learning from my critique partners. Learning from contest feedback. Figuring out that romance heroines (especially at Harlequin) actually have to be nice... My next book would be better. I tucked the first one into a drawer.

Sadly, I chose the now defunct Harlequin Flipside* line for my next manuscript attempt. I never even got a chance to submit manuscript #2 before the line was cancelled – but ms #2 was better. People told me it was better. I could tell it was better. It placed in a couple of big contests (and bombed in some others). I had grown a bit of a voice! About time.

Speaking of time… Is anyone keeping track? Yes. By the time I had finished this second manuscript and found out it was dead in the water before even getting a chance to launch, it was 2004. MY TWO YEARS WERE UP! (I think the announcement of the line cancellation actually happened the same month that my personal publish deadline expired. Slit wrists were considered...)

So, what did I do? Did I go back to my much-hated career in business and accounting? Did I try to find another path to follow? No. I started backpedaling with all the people I’d revealed my two-year limit to… (family, friends – myself)

And started writing another book.

That third manuscript THE MISEDUCATION OF APRIL HILLSON, got me signed with a fabulous agent,
Pamela Harty, and finalled in the Stiletto contest. I don’t have a book deal inked yet, but I’m super hopeful and guess what? Yup! Working on my fourth and fifth manuscripts.

May 2006 marked the fourth anniversary of my momentous decision to become a published author. Is it harder than I thought it would be? You bet. Do I wish I hadn’t started? NO WAY!

I’m glad no one told me how hard it would be… Correction. I’m glad I didn’t believe them.


    * Postscript: My CP Molly O'Keefe's Flipside DISHING IT OUT won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for 2005! Yea, Molly!!!

    21 comments:

    Diana Peterfreund said...

    Hey, Maureen! Great blog! I know exactlyu what you mean because I had the same thoughts when I first started. I even had a list of when I expected each of my manuscripts to be published (I had this idea I'd write one for every line at Hq).

    But I think it's important to clear up the MASSIVE misconceptions the newbs have. Someone did it for us, after all.

    Michelle said...

    I, for one, didn't think you were harsh at all on the loop. You were honest. And helpful.

    Supermodel Linda Evangelista's advice to young girls who came to her for advice about being a model is reported to have been, "Don't do it. You won't make it. Give up now." Well, she was a bitch. But the bottom line is, the ones who took her advice probably wouldn't have made it anyhow. It's the ones who said, "oh yeah? What do you know? I'll show you!" who had the drive and perseverence to make it. And that's what it's all about. Drive and perserverence.

    You can tell unpubs the worst horror stories of the business and if they're anything like I was, they will never believe it'll be that way for them. They'll be the exception. And, hey, sometimes it's true.

    Thinking about lifelong rejection is like thinking about death. You know it's a possibility, but you try not to dwell on it.

    Margaret Moore said...

    I know just how you feel, Maureen, 'cause I felt it myself a lot lately, too, like I'm some jaded old veteran muttering darkly about publishing... but I think it's really called Wisdom and Experience, or lessons learned from The School of Hard Knocks, as well as a genuine urge to save others some of the angst involved in the writing life. If you know it's not uncommon to get rejected at least once or twice before you sell, it makes those first rejections, while tough, not quite so terrible.

    We all start out starry-eyed, with dreams of success (even if it's just selling that first book) or let's face it, we wouldn't even start. But the reality is, it's not just about writing. We're starting a new career, with all that that entails. And publishing *is* a tough business in a lot of ways.

    The people who succeed need not, and indeed, should not be, ignorant of these realities. The successful writers continue regardless, because they have faith in their talent, the will and self-discipline to persist, some kind of positive feedback that says their goal is not utterly hopeless and an enjoyment in the writing process itself. If you have that, all the "reality" in the world won't stop you. Because you really *are* a writer.

    Kate Perry said...

    One of the very first writers meetings I went to was an editor speaking. She told us that it was impossible to get an agent, and if somehow we accomplished that it was doubly impossible (and unlikely) to get a book deal.

    I decided not to believe her. :)

    So you did them a service, Maureen. It's good to be aware of what you're up against. Those who are determined to succeed will despite it. Because, when you think about it, everything is impossible if you don't want it enough.

    Theresa Meyers said...

    Maureen, it's not you, it's them! Honestly, if a writer, newbie or not, can't take some of the harsh realities they aren't going to make a career out of this, whether they get the realities told to them from auntie Maureen or go with blind optimism to their keyboard.

    No amount of telling the truth can compete with cold hard stats. In America 85% of people want to write a book, but less than 5% ever start something. Out of that 5% that actual write something, only 3% ever complete an entire book. Just to completely write a book, sold or not, puts a writer in the elite nationwide. Does it guarantee you a career? Hardly.

    But how many athletes spend their entire lives training and competing, as compared to how many walk away with an Olympic gold metal? Basically if you’re not in it for love, you need to pick another career or you need to pursue it simply for the sake of accomplishment and saying “I did it” before you move on to some other goal.

    You’re not harsh. You’re giving them the tools to help them decide if this is important enough to spend years of their life pursing or not.

    Kristen Painter said...

    I totally agree with what Theresa said. If you can't face the truth, you probably don't belong in this business.

    Having said that, starry-eyed optimism goes a long way on bad days.

    Eileen said...

    I loved this post. It is possible we were twins seperated at birth. I didn't read your orginal post on the loop, but the reality of publishing is hard. People will believe or not believe no matter what you say.

    spy scribbler said...

    Great thoughts, Maureen! Your commenters are right. It takes a lot of perserverance to make it. On the other hand, I think we should encourage and embrace everyone to write.

    Writing makes a person a better reader. We're so focused on being professionals in this society, and making money from our art. I wish we would encourage people to be amateurs just for the sake of being an amateur. They practice their art out of love, and they support the professionals in their art.

    So I do feel we should encourage as many people as possible to enjoy the reading and writing world. BUT, I agree with your commenters. If they have the perserverance, nothing's going to stop them. Some fools (like me), are inspired by naysayers. If someone tells me I can't do something, I can't wait to prove them wrong!

    Bethany said...

    In any business, if you *want* it bad enough you'll keep working towards it no matter what the odds. Or maybe that is stupidity. ;-)

    Great post.

    Nancy said...

    Great post. It seems so insurmountably hard... But, still, people get contracts. It's amazing.

    K said...

    What?
    Life is damn hard?
    Geez, why didn't someone tell me that?
    Wait...I think I figured it out on my own.

    If you want to accomplish anything worth talking about, you have to be tough as hell.

    Maureen McGowan said...

    Diana, I love that you had a schedule! I wasn't quite that planned out but I did know how many per year and starting which year... I thought it would be so easy....

    Michelle, you made me laugh out loud with your Linda Evangelista is a bith line.

    Margaret... you are an inspiration and you're so right about it being a new career... It amazes me how so many people (including myself) think there's not much to learn.

    Kristin said...

    What I find strange is that you *did* have a relatively easy journey. Some people write for many more years than you did, writing many more manuscripts before getting an agent or getting published. I think you found success in a very short period of time--so your high school English teacher must have been right!

    I don't think you were unduly harsh (although I don't know what your posts actually said on your RWA group) to the newbie writers. I think sometimes other writers can be TOO nice about things...not telling the whole truth when critiquing, trying to paint everything with a happiness-and-puppies brush, etc.

    Don't feel badly for telling it like you see it. Those with stars in their eyes will probably not listen anyway.

    Sara Hantz said...

    Cracking post, Maureen. And I don't think you're being harsh by telling newbies. When I first started I wanted to know everything possible - still do. And finding out how hard it can be didn't put me off - just made me more determined!!

    Kathy Holmes said...

    Wow - what a great start to your blog - so many commenters right off the bat. And I totally related to what you said. BTW, one of my favorite quotes is this (don't remember who said it):

    "If you can do anything but be a writer, do it." :)

    Maureen McGowan said...

    Kristin... you're right. I have had it easier than some. Found an agent on the first book I tried to find one for... (but I wouldn't have gotten an agent with those first two books -- even though I was deluded about it at the time.

    Also, I'm so well aware, as Theresa pointed out, that having an agent -- even a great agent -- doesn't guarantee a book deal. I do feel now, though... like my odds are significantly increased. If not this book, then maybe the next, or the next. I've heard Gena Showalter's publication story and -- while I hope I don't have to wait so many books -- it is one of the reasons I'm so thrilled to have signed with an agency willing to stick with an author they believe in...

    Amanda Brice said...

    Great blog!

    As a relative newbie, I definitely appreciate hearing it all, the bad with the good. So thanks!

    Camy Tang said...

    Hi Maureen,
    Personally, I think you're right in making newbies realize what a tough business this is. I've seen too many people be horribly devastated by rejections as if they were personal daggers thrust into their chests. I mean, come on. It's a business.

    I went in with my eyes open, and I had published friends who told me all these depressing facts. I was glad, because it made me realize that I do have the personal confidence to keep going in the face of rejection, in the face of REALITY. I'd much rather be that person than the one totally disillusioned a couple years into her career that this writing gig is HARD.

    I guess that's kind of a mean opinion, but really, writing is a business. Yes, it's our passion, too, but it's still a business. I have very little patience with people try to ignore that.

    Camy

    AddledWriter said...

    I think many of us have similar stories. Great post!

    Caren

    Joanne said...

    I didn't believe them either, but I'm starting to.
    Great post, Maureen; you've encapsulated a lot of my own thoughts.

    Amra Pajalic said...

    Knowledge is power. This is why people join loops and get into a writing community. I went through a period where I couldn't deal with the reality of the publishing business. Hearing all the hard knock stories killed my muse and made it hard to keep going.

    Solution: I dropped out, kept writing, got some credits and overcame the block. Now I'm into a groove and I do it for the love and will keep at it regardless of the end result.

    If people find the truth depressing they need to take responsibility for themselves. But if they can listen to these stories and learn from them it's the better way to go. We all start out with completely unrealistic expectations and our idealism gets rubbed down.

    It's better to realise the truth of the matter and learn from other people's experiences so we can advance at a better pace. I have to concur with Spy Scribbler that even though your timelines were initially unrealistic that's a great achievement in getting an agent in such a short amount of time. It's stories like yours that inspire me.

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