Friday, October 21, 2011

Step It Up

Today is supposed to be a Happy Writer day, and while I think this topic is integral to ultimate happiness as a writer it's not a fun or very...inspiring topic. It's the hard truth, and it's this:

It is extremely hard to break into publishing, no matter the route you take.

And worse, it's getting even harder.

And chances are, you are...not good enough yet.

Ouch, ouch, ouchity, ouch. But there it is, I said it. I said it because this is a realization that, as hard as it is to face, every writer must face it at some point.

My "Come To Jesus" moment was around March 2009. I'd sent my partial to Nathan Bransford and he totally asked for the full. I thought I was Big Stuff. I thought I must be freaking brilliant. I thought I'd have a deal by the end of the year for sure (Note: Actual deal happened April of 2011, so...majorly delusional).

What I got was a very long email. An email that was actually 9 or 10 pages long, not double-spaced, when I printed it out. It started something like, "This story is great! But..." And then for pages Nathan proceeded to tell me every single possible issue with my novel, from character development to plotting to prose to theme to world building. EVERYTHING.

I'd never had a crit like that before. I had faithful crit partners, who kindly pointed out issues with my books, but nothing like that. I mean, he layed it all out, and clearly, too. There was really only one conclusion to be drawn—I was not a good enough writer.

That is the simple truth. I was not good enough! I had NO IDEA that I was missing so much, that I was so far from the mark.

It was like getting dumped in a tank of cold water, this realization. How had I dared query when I was still so lacking? How had I dared to think I was ready to be published at all? All of the sudden I could see clearly just how much further I had to go, and that maybe I wasn't taking this whole writing thing as seriously as I should have.

That was the first time I really looked at my work critically. Sure, I pretended to be all serious about editing before that, but honestly I had no clue what I was doing. And my story was awesome! It unfolded organically, and surely that is how it should be so nothing could be wrong with it unless it was a difference of opinion (*hangs head*).

As cheesy as it sounds, my eyes were opened. There was a big gaping hole in my novel, and I could either try to fix it or give up. Obviously, I kept working. But I wanted to point out this moment because it was a major turning point in my journey towards becoming a better writer (note I said better writer, regardless of the publishing outcome). I improved greatly when I found a crit group, and then again when I worked with Nathan, who had more skill than I did and could push me that much further.

And, boy, did I get pushed. Do you know what I got after I finished all the revisions in that 10 page email? ANOTHER 10 page email. And another. Okay, and one more before I got signed...and another after. All on one book. I don't call it Writer's Bootcamp for nothing. I think Nathan was smart, to give it to me in pieces, so he didn't completely overwhelm me and my newbiness.

Ever so slowly, over the process of about nine months, he turned me into a good writer, not just one with a lot of good story ideas and potential. And I will be forever grateful for this investment in me, because he didn't have to do it and he did anyway.

I think every writer needs to have this kind of moment—this "Oh crap, so I'm really not good enough what do I do NOW?" realization. It sucks, but it's the beginning of the next leg in the journey, the leg that is SO MUCH BETTER because you start to see the results you've been wanting for so long. Sure, it may take a couple more years (it did for me), but the improvement is measurable and continued. Stuff clicks. It's at once trying and triumphant, as you see just how much further you can push yourself as a writer.

In the end, I guess what I'm saying is to keep pushing yourself and seeking out ways to improve. Never assume just because you got to a certain point that you have it made—there is always, always room for improvement. And right now, when things are so tough in the business all around, you can't afford to stop pushing for better. The competition is stiff. If you're on sub right now, you know that better than anyone. Gone are the days when you could get away with a good idea and decent writing. Everyone has a killer idea. Everyone's writing is getting better and better quality by the second. If you don't meet the mark, the stark truth is that there are thousands of others who do, and their books will be bought instead.

So step it up. Never stop pushing for that next level. Take writing and revision seriously, and be honest about the state of your work. If it's not where it needs to be, take it there.


  1. This is the kind of honesty we all need! Awesome post, thank you for writing it.

  2. I have not been slapped to earth in this way...yet. But it's coming. Great post, Natalie, and inspiring to see how you were able to use the 'bad news' to good advantage.

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing this with us. It's posts like this that make me work harder and push myself as far as I can.

  4. I know I'm not good enough...yet. But half the fun is in the journey. Thanks for this post!

  5. Thanks for the kick in the pants. I've improved a lot from where I began as my feedback from authors and agents is of much better quality than in the past, but I know I have further and deeper to go. Thanks for the reminder not to get lazy and complacent. You've been in the trenches; you know of which you speak.

  6. "How had I dared to think I was ready to be published at all?"


    I'm really impressed that Nathan took that much time with someone he hadn't even signed yet. I think it must show that he saw something that convinced him you were worth it. As you said, you weren't there yet. But you could get there.

  7. I loved this. I needed this. What a great eye opening kick in the butt. Time to work on the craft.

  8. And on the flip side - just because you're not good enough now, doesn't mean you won't ever be. My music teacher in high school used to repeat that a lot. Kid would say, "I can't do it!" and teacher would reply, "Yet." And he'd push us to continue practicing and putting in effort, and sure enough, eventually we'd find we could do it.

  9. Hee hee. I remember the process I now fondly refer to as the Bransford Wringer. And I'm being genuine, not saracastic, when I say "fondly." Because somehow even while he listed dozens of ways in which I could improve a ms., he always made it sound totally do-able, and I would be excited rather than discouraged about revising. That's what they call *constructive* criticism.

    And it's good preparation for editorial letters, which are similar. Even when a ms. is good enough to get a contract and have people investing their time and money in it, it still usually needs a fair amount of revision. An editorial letter is two paragraphs saying how much the editor loves your book, with a few pages in between listing everything that's wrong with it.

    I always submit a book that's as polished as I know how to make it--but an editorial letter opens new doors in my mind.

  10. Great post, Natalie. Love the honesty and the wisdom, even if it is sometimes hard to take in.

  11. Good advice and congratulations on making it through the quagmire of revisions etc. It helps to develop a thick skin and to have a certain degree of confidence.

  12. Be honest about the state of work. That's what I needed to hear.

  13. This is what I have been expecting all along. Well, after my super-newbie-confident days (you know, after writing my first book in three months and thinking it was totally awesome). I expect that no matter how good I get, someone will say that I need to work on it. And I will agree wholeheartedly. I think as soon as writers realize this, the better off they'll be. With critiques as well as looking for ways to improving the craft.

    Great post!

  14. This is such a wonderful post. Brave and honest. I had a similar realisation when I got my first editing request back from my publisher. I had to cut the first two chapters and find a way to make any of the important information in there work elsewhere in the novel. There's still so much work to do, but my editor is fantastic and helping me every step of the way.

    The first step to wisdom is admitting you know nothing. :-)

  15. That's a tough realization. I'm think I'm improving as a writer, but I doubt I'd pass the Bransford test yet. It's sometimes hard to reconcile that knowlege with the impatience to get out there.

    To me, it's about finding the right balance between process and goal. You need goals, of course, or you'll never arrive anywhere. But if you focus entirely on objectives you can end up incredibly frustrated when your work just doesn't reach the bar. So getting better and enjoying that process as a partial end in itself has to become one of your objectives. You need to settle in and savor the journey.

  16. With every critique I undoubtedly face this type of realization, but as you said, it's all so we can improve as writers. Great post.

  17. My experience with my now-agent was very similar to yours. Nine months of revisions, in small (or not so small) chunks before signing anything. I just couldn't believe (and still can't believe) this agent was willing to spend so much time on me! As scary and disheartening as it was receiving these long emails, it was such a gift to have a professional spend so much time developing me and my ms., and I know I will take the skills I learned in that first real editing process with me forever.

    And if that isn't a Happy Writer post, I don't know what is :)

  18. Oh my God I have moments like that every six months! I just had one like last week. (In fact I'm going on an Edgar Award winner reading frenzy whilst I work on the second draft of my WIP). I remember when my agent sent me her editorial email about my second book. God it was long. This is a great post and so true!

  19. WHAT? It's getting HARDER to get published?!? NO! It's ALREADY hard! UGH! Le sigh.

  20. Amen. That is really all I have left to add. You covered it all... :) Well done.