It takes a lot of rocks to get to the candy

My wife and I coordinated our Halloween costumes this year, to correspond with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! She’s Lucy, complete with red witch hat and green witch mask; both custom-made — my wife is just talented as hell like that. My outfit, on the other hand, is far simpler: Charlie Brown — to include the white sheet with way too many eye holes. A family friend commented to me (tonight, at the local ward party) that all I needed to complete my portion, was a football, and a paper sack filled with rocks.

I’ve use the sack-full-of-rocks analogy before, to describe what it’s like being an aspiring author. Especially back in the days before dignified independent publishing existed. You either vanity-published, or you did the hard chore of sending your (paper!) manuscripts off to editors. As well as agents. In exchange for (paper!) rejection letters. Lots, and lots, and lots of rejection letters. I still have a fairly large three-ring binder, stuffed with all the paper slips I’ve ever received. As of 2016, I think my electronic rejections have reached or exceeded the paper number. Many hundreds, or more. I’ve lost count, to be honest. And they’ve not stopped, even with a robustly healthy publishing track record to my credit.

When you’re new, it occasionally seems like Lucy is eternally yanking the ball away. No matter how hard you run at it, you can’t connect. You just end up flat on your back, wondering what the hell is wrong with you, or your work. What’s the issue? Do you really and truly suck? Or is the system somehow broken? Maybe, stacked against you?

The truth is that publishing is now easier than it’s ever been. But success? In the words of Kevin J. Anderson, success is as hard as it always was. Maybe, I would add, harder? Because there are more people publishing prose — in the English language, in the 21st century — than at any other time in history. Thousands of new books and stories are launched every single day. The removal of editors and agents as the sole gatekeepers of the industry, means that literally everyone can take their books and stories directly to the marketplace. Which is a bit like having hundreds of new NASCAR drivers merge onto the track every hour, on the hour. And the track is infinitely wide.

It’s enough to make even a competently optimistic author throw up her hands and utter, “Good grief!”

Here’s the good news, as non-intuitive as it may sound. Getting rocks in your sack helps you get better.

No, really, it does. Even if you’re an indie author. Because this is what forces you to work. To not stay put, churning at the same level of authorial acumen.

My hundreds of rejections have been hard. They’re still hard. But they’re a reminder to me that there is always room for improvement. And especially in the beginning, when I honestly and truly did not know what I was doing — I still have many of those old manuscripts, believe me, I know how appropriate it is that they never saw print! — rejection was a limiter against which I had to push myself. And it also taught me humility. In addition to appreciation for the eventual wins, when they came.

But only after my sack had filled up with rocks, year after year.

Yeah, I get it. No sane person gets a sack full of rocks every single year, and doesn’t experience moments of severe doubt. I was getting ready to throw in the towel by 2005 — after over a dozen years of rejection — when my wife said to me, “If you let this dream go, you have to replace it with an equal or better dream.” I ultimately couldn’t do that, because I couldn’t turn off the story-generator in my head. Even if my storytelling chops weren’t yet good enough to take what was happening in my head, and smoothly translate it to words. So I redoubled my effort. And I switched up my style. Moving from third-person to first-person — especially for short stories — was a huge win for me. Uncomfortable as hell, at first. But it was the necessary move that helped me bump my short work into entry-level professional territory. So that by 2010 I had stuff under contract, with more on the way, and a bona fide career was launched.

And because I still had all those sacks filled with rocks, I could look at them and relish the (then, new) candy suddenly being thrown my way.

I still relish the candy, because it’s more common now, and of a higher quality, more often. I’d not appreciate any of this, without my requisite sacks of rocks — earned over my proverbial first million words of “practice” prose.

So don’t feel like it’s a thankless chore, if you’re still getting rejections, or your indie work is dudding in the marketplace. For whatever reasons, you’re still not connecting (yet!) with that football. It may take you a few more (or a lot more?) manuscripts, to hone your intuitive storytelling capabilities to the point that your prose is capable of doing what you need it to, in order to consistently entertain an audience. Be it the audience of the editor or agent, or the audience of the open marketplace. Again, thousands of new “drivers” merging onto the NASCAR oval every day. You’re not alone. Most of those people won’t stick. Bottom line. They won’t get traction, and will move on to some other endeavor. The way to win on the oval, is to simply keep going around and around and around. Ensure that you never take yourself out of the race. Keep showing up on those porches and front stoops, your paper sack open and ready to receive what’s coming to you. It doesn’t make you a blockhead, if you try and fail. You’re only a blockhead if you try, then fail, and assume that trying was pointless. Or that somehow, magically, everyone else who is getting candy, knows the secret launch codes or something.

There’s no secret. Just effort. And patience.

Don’t expect it all to come to you at once. Accept the setbacks and the mistakes. They are only fruitless if you don’t learn from them — if they have not shown you some way you can do better.

Because when the wins do come . . . believe me, you will experience satisfaction unlike almost any other.

17 thoughts on “It takes a lot of rocks to get to the candy

  1. Yep. Lots of rejections. Enough with reasons given that helped. Enough weird reactions to make me really work to figure out what I was doing wrong and fix it, if not on that story, then the one that was underway.

    It’s not a career for the thin skinned or easily dissuaded, for sure.

  2. I have a couple of problems with a Charlie Brown and the football analogy is that only once did Lucy intend to let him kick the ball, and he did the same thing over and over expecting different results. Unless we’ve really ticked off a slush pile reader, they’re not going to know us from Adam’s house cat, so it’s not a matter of not making a sale no matter what we write. And if we don’t try to improve our game, odds are we’ll never make that sale.

    To be fair, you point out manuscripts rejected because they’re not good enough and tell how you changed your writing. Most slush pile readers are just holding the football; it’s the writer who fails to connect with it. And the one time Lucy intended to let him kick the football, poor old Charlie Brown kicks Lucy’s hand instead. He still failed to connect.

    Unlike the rock that Charlie Brown only got trick or treating – something I despised when I first saw that special and despise to this day because it’s arbitrary – rejections usually aren’t. But here we get to why I think rejections hurt. It’s not just that they’ve said our precious isn’t good enough, it’s we don’t know why it’s not good enough. And so writers often indulge in rejectomancy, a dark art which leads only to madness.

    I do mean madness. I forget which SF editor told of opening a manila envelope and finding, along with the manuscript, a cut-out of a hand waiving the impudent digit. Like that cover letter was going to make a sale. He assumed the unnamed writer was convinced they weren’t going to buy his manuscript, so he got in a dig. He also violated one of the commandments for writers: Thou shalt not cheese off thy editor, but that’s falls under the topic of burning your bridges.

    Of course editors aren’t going to offer a critique. That’s not their job. Watch people at a crafts fair. When they see something they don’t like, do they tell the vendor why? No; they walk on to something else. It’s the same with writing. We’re all vendors at a crafts fair, our craft being our writing, and if it grabs customer’s interest fine, if not, well, those are the breaks.

    If this sounds flippant, I’m not. For whatever reasons, rejection slips hurt to varying degrees. I can’t find it now, but an essay Asimov wrote on rejection slips was excellent. He wrote about seeing them in the mail and the sky turning black. When we have an indie work that doesn’t sell, it’s the same thing. Then we have to work out why it didn’t sell and try to correct it.In the end, it’s us, as a writer, that determines our sales, even if it’s saying “To #$%% with it” and going off to do something else.

  3. Somewhere in the Archeological Filing System is a rejection letter from one of the editors at Guns & Ammo, from 1990 or early 1991. It was in response to a query letter. When I find it I will scan it and put it on my web page.

    I’d already sold two books and a handful of magazine articles by then, so I was already aware that *any* rejection letter was a step up from silence…

    It’s a full-page Trigglypuff raging freak-out, moving from braggartry about the editor’s credentials to how they could get a “real” writer to cover the subject, which they wouldn’t because it was stupid and readers would laugh at them, then to ad hominem raving.

    It was so over the top that my only reaction was “I guess that means no, then.”

  4. Ah yes, the bane of our existence… Rejections can also act as goads to make us rethink, rewrite, and improve our books, OR send us away from the craft forever… I never kept rejection letters, simply because I didn’t want to be reminded of the negatives… The one that tipped me into indie was one that said even if I vanity published Vignettes, I’d never sell 200 copies, because nobody read short stories, nor did they like anything with guns in it…

      1. Those Robert Ludlum, Stephen Coonts, Larry Bond, Ian Fleming, Clive Cussler, Alistair MacLean, and John Sandford works were all full of sweetness and light, too. 😉

    1. “nor did they like anything with guns in it”

      But . . . what . . .but . . . huh?

  5. And then there are the Danica Patricks of the world, like by some not because they are especially talented, but because they are –fill in the blank–. Meanwhile talented young drivers/writers, Chris Buescher comes to mind, are over looked because they are ‘just another white male’.

    Sorry, the NASCAR reference brought that to mind.

  6. I see a couple of niches I still want to try, in the background. It’s been an interesting year, punctuated by a sale here and there (just setting up to blog about it, since Amazon gave me such interesting sawtooth graphs.

    People do things differently. I’ve been writing for twenty years, but the debut novel wasn’t let out of the house until it was as perfect as I could make it. The strategy of publishing lots isn’t with my grasp, but I like the results, so who cares.

    I probably earned as much money as I might of traditionally published with no push (okay, less – if they’re still giving out ‘advances’). But at least I get to keep 70% of it.

  7. So the question arises, however. What is ‘success’?
    How many copies do you have to sell?
    How much money do you need to earn?
    Or is it just getting signed with a publisher?
    Where’s the finish line? What’s the criteria?
    Still trying to figure out the answer to this one.

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