Tuesday, May 15, 2007

At What Point Do You Pack It In?

Last week I learned that fellow blogger and author Sand Storm had packed it in. There was a message up on the old blog site, but even that’s gone now.

Snap. Just like that, gone.

Elsewhere I was reading about someone who’s letting another manuscript languish in a drawer.

One of the things I was told very early on was not to give up. The words came from an author who told me how many rejection letters they’d received before finally getting published.


We tend to take bad reviews and rejections much the same way. It doesn’t matter how many acceptances you’ve had, or how many good reviews, it’s always the biting one that gets to you. Criticisms ring louder.

The reality is, editors rejected Harry Potter early on. This article from the NY Times is well worth the read, but one of the things it talked about was a book that many publishers passed on that eventually sold to Random House, and then through word of mouth became a NY Times bestseller.

Sometimes, you just have to believe. It really doesn’t matter about all the editors who say no – all that matters is the one who says yes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because of something that Steve Mosby said for an upcoming Spinetingler interview, about having the support of your publisher behind you in the long term. Steve has that, and truly, it’s what every author should really want, more than the flashy deals and advance touting as a mega-star.

Perhaps the problem is that sometimes, we get sidetracked into thinking we should have what others have and that that’s the way. I am always mindful of the fact that many of the authors I respect the most - Bruen, Pelecanos, Lippman, Rankin - spent time paying their dues. They were not overnight successes. And that’s why none of them have been a flash in the pan either.

It’s easy for others to look at their current success and envy them. It’s also lazy. I guess it's the way of the world, to want today what others worked for years for.

Set realistic goals for yourself. There will be moments of discouragement. Okay, some times, there will be whole weeks of discouragement. At the end of the day the love of writing remains the same, and it’s the one constant. Even if nothing I produced ever went into print again I’d still be writing.

And hey, I’d have a lot of free books to give away as downloads.

Speaking of which, the free books draw winners:

Simon Kernick’s The Business of Dying goes to… Terry.

Ian Rankin’s A Question of Blood goes to… Rosemary.

And I have concluded from the number of people who said they’d never read a Rankin book that I have obviously not been doing enough to promote him, so there are subliminal messages in the text of this post telling you to read Rankin. It's my blog, I can do what I want.


JamesO said...

I can't remember who it was who said it, but I like the quote: 'It takes ten years to become an overnight success.'

I don't really want to admit to how long I've been plugging away at the writing game, but I started submitting comic scripts to 2000ad magazine in 1992. They even bought one in 1993, but then.... nothing.

Looking through my old rejection files, I find that I've submitted four of my novels to my agent on spec, and been rejected for the first three. She doesn't remember any of them except that last one that caught her eye.

I guess the moral is, you've just got to keep trying, and only pack it in if you're not enjoying it anymore.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's pretty much it James. In a nutshell.

Randy Johnson said...

Congrats to the winners! Just to let you know, you've converted me. I ordered Die Twice(The Business of Dying and The Murder Exchange as well as an introduction by Lee Child) a few days ago and it came yesterday. I also ordered Steve Mosby's first two novels And Suspicious Circumstances, but they have not yet come. You're ruining me. Thanks for the heads up!

Ali Karim said...


I felt sorry for Sandstorm [aka Steve Clackson] as he posted some nice comments vis-a-vis my Rap Sheet Work.

He wrote in closing down his blog, he wrote -

"Sometimes in life you have to come to terms with the realization that enough is enough. When your days writing and even your reading seems less enjoyable. When you finally come to terms with rejections and the fact you may never get your novel published. When you draft your 500th post as this is and realize that it's not much fun anymore. When after 3 yrs of writing, blogging and querying there is little to show for it, then it is time to move on. Thanks to all of you for your comments and e-mails over the past 18 months that I've been blogging take care and best wishes. "

But the problems for him started about a year before, and created a bit of a storm in a teacup in the Blogosphere -


Had to cut link into three peices to post

Hmmmm conflicting opinions here, and I guess both sides in this war have their points being valid -

Still it's sad / but never quit, as I've had my back to the wall many, many times - And I've found that adversity breeds strength, or perhaps kills you...


Sandra Ruttan said...

Aw Randy... I feel doubly bad you didn't win one of the books now.

Ali, thanks for putting that in about Sand Storm. I saw the post but when I tried to locate it today I couldn't get it - I kept getting redirected off blogger.

I'm not up on the problems he had with Lee. I seldom read that blog. Perhaps, from a purely theoretical perspective here, this is why we should all be a bit more careful on the blogs though. I've always treated the blog as pretty casual communication, seldom edit posts, nor do I spend much time writing them. Yet we've seen a few occasions in the past year when there have been a war of words blog to blog.

I'm pretty opinionated, and pretty defensive of my friends, but I'm trying harder to stay out of those arguments. More than anything else that tempts me to quit blogging, because I think some of it is unhealthy.

Anyway, side rant there.

"but never quit, as I've had my back to the wall many, many times - And I've found that adversity breeds strength, or perhaps kills you..."

Amen to that Ali. There was one simple thing my husband said when I started on SC three years ago - if I didn't try I'd never know if I could make it. It took my cousin 10 years in Nashville to see his first CD come out and now he's an award-winning songwriter. You've just got to hang in there.

Christa M. Miller said...

I'm stubborn as hell and not likely to give up anytime soon, but one thing that does bother me - probably because I am at least one-quarter German - is that it seems so dreadfully inefficient to spend years on a novel/writing career and never see it go anywhere. I know, I know, it all counts as practice and your tenth written novel may be the successful one. Is it irrational as hell to feel like my time is valuable and I want to maximize it by publishing everything I write? Probably... but at the same time, that challenges me to do the absolute best I can.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I know what you mean Christa, but I try to look at it this way:

Virtually every career on the planet requires a diploma, degree, certificate or apprenticeship.

Which means they all require the investment of time spent training and studying.

The overwhelming majority of us don't get paid to go to school. We're more likely to work our way through it.

The main difference with writing is you don't know when you start how long your apprenticeship will be. It might be a year or it might be several years.

Perhaps I should be just horrid enough to suggest that's something us mystery writers should appreciate - the suspense.

Christa M. Miller said...

Horrid? Try evil!

I guess the "suspense," as you put it, is the price we pay for choosing a career that is so one-size-fits-each. And unpredictable. One of the most frustrating things on days when the baby won't stop crying and the kid is out of control is the thought that maybe I don't have anything to look forward to after all. Maybe I'm just telling myself that one day I'll find success with fiction because that's what I need to believe to get me through these days. Scary, scary stuff.

But as Kevin says... you'll never know unless you try. And I think that's the biggest lesson I want my kids to walk away with. To stick with something for love rather than the money or benefits. If you think about it, that's a lesson for so much else in life - marriage, volunteerism, and, well, kids....

But DAMN I hate the idea of my stuff being seen by only a half-dozen or so people! ;)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well... I know others say it, but I'm really glad that my first version of SC didn't see print. A year after I wrote the first draft I went back and rewrote it. Now, some parts stayed pretty much the same, but what happened was, I tightened up a lot. I took two novels and combined them into one. I went from 170,000 words down to 150,000. Then 133,000. Then 124,000. That's where it was when it sold. Trimmed more for publication.

In that time span, I learned a lot about character arc, about tight writing, about general storytelling. In many respects I'm still surprised the book got published. I'd figured I'd be like everyone else and it would be my learning novel. It's unlike (in atmosphere and tone) much of the other stuff I write. It's been quite the learning experience.

And since it's been printed I've never cracked the cover to look inside. A friend of mine called me up to ask a question from the book about a character and I literally said, "Who?"

One of the things for me is that I still feel very experimental. I want to do different things with my writing, not the same old, same old all of the time. I'd much prefer to get a publisher who has some latitude for that and wants to nurture it. Right now, the manuscript I'm working on would likely not get shelved in mystery. There's something frightening and rewarding in branching out. One thing I don't ever want someone to say when they read my work is, "It's just like so-and-so's."

I guess (though I know little of Steve Clackson's full story so this is not about him) what people really have to come to terms with is that sometimes some work doesn't see print. This is a business where you have to kill your darlings. Sometimes you have to let go and move forward.

Kris said...

Discouragement seems to be the battle that all writers face, and it's a bit like fighting the hydra - overcome one discouraging rejection or flat writing day and another rears up in its place.

The paradox is that most of us feel compelled to keep going anyway. We do it for the love, which should be enough, but of course it's not. Writing without publishing is a bit like undressing for sex and then realising you're alone in the bedroom.

But while publishing is satisfying, the real pay-off is getting that letter or email from a reader who enjoyed something you created. I got my first of those about a month ago, and I think I got a bigger kick out of that than anything else before it. It made the seven frustrating years and hundreds of thousands of words (not to mention rejection notes) that came before it all worthwhile.

And adding to what Sandra said about overnight success: I think most aspiring writers probably hold up a particular career as their ideal, something to strive for. In Stephen King's On Writing, he gives a wonderful account of how his publisher called him up to say Carrie's paperback rights had sold for $400,000. I always dreamed that something similar might happen to me (until I learned enough about the modern publishing industry to know it was just that - a dream). It's only recently - perhaps because I've turned 30 - that I've pondered the downside of such overnight success. For King, I think it poured fuel on the flames of his addictive personality, and in his latter years he has carried his popular success like a ball and chain. Lisey's Story suggested to me a writer trying to snap the restraints of his popular past.

Dean Koontz is another example - one of his earliest novels, Demon Seed, was a 'learning' book that somehow got published. He has since revised it so heavily that it's barely recognizable as the same novel. I almost had a book published back in 2003 by a small Aussie publisher who obviously did not know his onions. I'm now grateful the company folded before that novel could see print. I would be ashamed of it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Funny thing is, I talk to few authors who like their own first book. I'm not going to name names, but I think one of the most reassuring conversations I ever had was with an author who told me that. And really, it was almost a passing remark.

To some degree we're our own worst critic, and of course we see our own progress and what we've learned and want to go back and apply it. SC is mainstream, it isn't noir. It's different than the other manuscripts I've written in terms of tone. Doesn't make it better or worse, necessarily - just different.

That said, enough time and I'll go back and make changes to anything I've written. I've heard of authors who take a red pen to their author copy when the book is published. Unfortunately, how we improve is tied to being able to evaluate past performance and learn from it.

Which means we seldom enjoy any accomplishments for long.

Kris said...

"...we seldom enjoy any accomplishments for long."

That's so true. I remember thinking my first story acceptance would be like some sort of apotheosis, but following a short afterglow I hungered for a second. And a third. And then a novel.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I really try to maintain as zen a perspective on this as I can. Yes, getting published would be wonderful, but I can't seem to stop writing. It's like smoking. There is no quitting, just longer periods of abstinence. I have no illusions that my novel will get an agent, get published or win awards. If it does, great, if it doesn't, well, that'll suck, no doubt about it. But it won't be for lack of trying.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Oh, and you're right, you haven't done enough to promote Rankin. I still haven't read any of his books.

anne frasier said...

it makes me sad when published and unpublished writers quit, but at the same time i think quitting sometimes takes more guts than continuing.

writing may not be one of the most dangerous occupations, but I think it would probably rank up there as one of the most stressful. and it definitely cuts into or eliminates completely a life outside the writing world. it's interesting that writers write about life, but the very act of writing often keeps them from participating in it. I guess we live on the page.
i have a friend who quit writing at the peak of her career to take a job at the post office. she's a different person now. a HAPPY person. so i wish sand storm all the best and many happy years enjoying friends and family.

anne frasier said...

i shouldn't have used the word quit, because it's not quitting -- it's moving on. it's realistically realizing that the risks are too high and the sacrifices too great. and the writers who look like they've "made it" are just as miserable as the ones who never sold.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, this post wasn't so much against Sand Storm as it was an encouragement to keep writing. And I don't necessarily mean in the business. I think if you're a writer, you'll always write, even if it's just for yourself... but I could be wrong.

There's no doubt this is a tough business Anne. And some people out there make it pure hell. I completely understand the authors who've chosen to keep a wall between themselves and the community - they're probably the smart ones. One only needs to drop by some blogs and see the backbiting and fighting to know that not everyone out there is wonderful, or really worth spending time on. As I said above, I'm pretty defensive of my friends but I'm trying to stay away from the conflict zones now. When people post topics on forums and blogs that I know they'll argue to the death on I might post one comment, but then I usually drop it anymore. And don't go back and read responses. Life's too short.

Sometimes I think the way some authors believe they'll get ahead is by destroying others. That's what makes me sad about this, more than anything. I know if I quit it wouldn't be because I was sick of writing - it would be because I was sick of some people.