Why Most Writers Give Up & How To Persist To Publication
I’m a creative writing teacher and I love doing it. I get the unique experience of sharing something I love doing, that puts a roof over my head and friends in my phone list, with people of all shapes and sizes.
Perhaps the greatest part of it is seeing people learn and grow and feel worthwhile after I get them to the point where they fly off on their own wings. There is just one thing that makes me cringe sometimes.
Often, people will begin a class and I will say that the first few sessions will be about poetry and almost always, one of my students says, “I’m not really that good at poetry.” or “I can’t write poetry.”
Then I simply ask them, “How many poems have you written?”
“Four or five,” they often respond.
I cringe, but there is a funny side to this. Perspective.
No one sits down to write for the first time and crafts anything close to perfection. Not even the greats.
Vincent Van Gogh didn’t create any masterpieces among his first dozen paintings.
Most professional writers write 5 to 20 versions of the same poem before they decide it is ready to show someone. And then it typically takes additional drafting before the decision is made to send off for publication.
There Is Nothing Wrong With Trying. Through Trying, You Learn.
I studied French a great deal growing up, and, in my schooling, wrote many essays. In French, you first learn verbs. I found it interesting that essayer is a French verb describing the action "to try."
This made me realize that when I wrote an essay, the point was to try to prove something. If I didn't succeed in proving it, however, I didn't fail. I just wasn't done. I had to go back to the drawing board. I had to keep trying until I made my point.
Look For Ways To Love the Process
Many studies have shown that to really master a skill, you need to practise it for 10,000 hours. Mind you, that is mastery. I have seen evidence that you can get pretty good at something doing it for as little as 20 hours.
"If you practise poetry writing or short story writing for 20 hours, you will get yourself to a level where you can not only read your work to others, but even prepare to send it out for publication."
If you put proper effort into submitting pieces and you find publishers, you will be encouraged to keep going.
Eventually, you will find that you have racked up those 10,000 hours—not because you were watching the clock, but because you were focused on honing your craft.
Don’t Stop Writing
There are two iconic figures that I often think of when I run across people who give up on poetry or short stories after just four or five attempts.
One is Ray Bradbury, the prolific and incredible author of books such as The Martian Chronicles, and many other short, science fiction stories. His advice to budding authors was this:
Don't worry about writing a novel early on.
His reasoning was that it may take a year to write a novel, and you won’t know if it is any good until you finish.
Whereas if instead you focus on writing one short story a week for a year, you will collect 50 stories, and they can’t all be bad. In fact, a few may be great.
And did you know it doesn't take more than a few to put a collection together? A lot of very successful short story collections have just 10 or so stories in them.
The other person I think of is the greatest baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth.
"Babe Ruth struck out over 1,000 times in his career, but he would not quit and ended up having more home runs than any other player of his time."
If you can write 1,000 poems, diligently learning and improving as you go, you could be a world class poet.
Develop All of Your Writing Skills
To get good at writing, you need to stick with it. To do that, you need love for the craft. Love is what gives you the patience and persistence to hone all the skills you need to become the best writer you can become.
In my case, I decided to take a class in typing back when I was in school. I knew I'd want to do a lot of writing one day, and I'd heard that if you learn to type, you can write much faster than handwriting allows.
It may have taken two or three semesters of typing class to master it, but it was worth it. Now, I can write as quickly as ideas come to me. And that makes writing such a joy, and certainly something I will never give up.
Acting Isn’t Everything Unless You Act Every Role
There is so much to love about writing. I once watched an interview with Kirk Douglas, whose health had declined in his 90s, to the point where he did little acting, yet still wrote books.
The interview opened my eyes to the incredible feeling one can get from being a writer.
Kirk Douglas had an impressive acting career over the course of many years. He was in the hearts and minds of so many people—he played classic roles, like Odysseus in an early version of the Odyssey; he teamed up with Burt Lancaster to play a weightlifting ex-con looking for meaning, etc.
But, when Kirk was asked if he missed acting, he said this of writing:
“When I was acting, I played just one character. Now when I write I get to play every character.”
Writing brought him joy and meaning late in life. And it has the potential to bring this to everyone. Everyone, that is, who manages to sit down a few hours a week and devote themselves to the process.
Marketing Is Essential
One of the reasons I think it is so important to love the actual writing process, is that, sadly, for a great deal of writers this will be the only payback you receive.
This isn’t because there aren’t enough contests or enough publications, and certainly not because there isn’t enough need for good writing.
It simply becomes very hard to find the right places to send your work when you are starting out as a writer.
"Perhaps the most important thing about being a good writer is to learn how to be a good marketer."
You write your book, and you feel great. Maybe you get a few friends and family members to buy it. But there is so much more that can be done.
If you are very successful, one in a thousand people will read or buy your book, but you have to earn each one of those readers.
It used to be that publishers would take on an author who showed promise and help them develop. The publishers would sponsor things like travel, book signings, and so on, and an agent would set up interviews and appearances.
Now, the reality is that it can be difficult to find a conventional publisher. This is because publishers are like investors. Meaning, it is always a risk for them to put money into a book. So if you are an author with no proven track record for creating marketable work that actually sells... you're fighting an uphill battle.
It's not impossible. There are writers whose debut poetry books win awards. But your work must be excellent. Very high standards apply.
You Don’t Have To Do Everything the Hard Way
If you still want to write and publish traditionally, there are shortcuts that you can use to your advantage.
First, you can take a creative writing program. Your teachers will be writers themselves. Sitting through their lectures and completing their assignments will improve your craft exponentially.
Second, get to know the publisher you are submitting your work to. More on that next.
Know Your Publisher
Each publisher works with a specific range of writing genres. This means, when pitching your book, it isn’t as simple as sending your poetry manuscript to a poetry publisher.
You will have to keep on researching to find, for example, a poetry publisher that wants to publish Western Canadian authors at the mid-point of their career with an emphasis on free verse poems about farming.
One of the great things is that, if you do this, if your writing fits, you have a really good chance of getting them to publish your work.
One of the more efficient ways to find out where you have the best chance of publishing is to spend a lot of time at the library.
Look up books that are like yours. Read them if you can, making careful note of the publication date, and write down when, where, and who published these books.
Find out the names and career milestones of these publishers’ senior editors. Read through literary magazines, again making notes. When you see magazines that regularly publish poems that are similar to yours, get a few back issues from the publisher’s website and get acquainted with their style.
This will do more good for your writing career than just about any method.
Know Your Competition
One of the realities of the publishing world, especially when it comes to poetry, and to an extent, short stories, is that when you approach a publisher, they want to see that you have previously published work in recognized publications, like literary magazines.
Why? Literary magazines publish high quality work. It will be well worth your time to read them—to find out where to submit, but also improve your own craft.
If you want to be a writer, you should be a reader. You should love everything about books, you should feel excited that you managed to squirrel away a few hours from your schedule to read a new volume by your favourite author.
Stephen King, who has more than 50 International bestsellers, is known to read around 50 books each year. “I do this," he explains, "so I can learn what the other writers are doing.”
Stay Up To Date
When I was younger, it was said that human knowledge doubles every 10 years. I wouldn’t doubt that the rate is much quicker now.
As a writer who seeks approval from a paying readership, it is important to stay on top of what is going on in the literary world, and the world in general.
You will be sorely disappointed if you try to appeal to young, teen readers and have no knowledge of modern slang or music or fashion.
Subscribe to a reputable e-newspaper. One writing instructor I heard of some years back told his students as he dropped a thick copy on his desk, that all they need to do to get ideas and subject material is to read The New York Times every day.
Know Your Target Audience
If you want to tell a story about teenagers, and are out of touch as I am, it doesn’t mean you can’t write about them. You may, however, want to be clear in your writing that you are talking about teenagers in the past—i.e. before cell phones and electronic dance music—and that you want to appeal to adults with your work.
This is because publishers will want to see a well thought out marketing plan, comparisons to similar books that are out there, and reasons why your book will stand out.
The road to becoming a successful, or even satisfied, writer can be a long one, but it doesn't have to be unenjoyable.
Yes, you will have to make space in your life to write. When you take on a project, you need to set aside time to research, write, revise, and market. And it's true this may not be easy to balance with work, your social life, and all the rest.
Never despair though. Not only will you get better at your craft over time, if you write habitually, but you will also find reward in the process, too.