It’s a slow day in Bloggerville. That is to say I’ve had a hard time deciding what to blog about. I finally decided to get in the holiday mood by discouraging a few writers if I can. Of course, the secret is that if what I say discourages you to the point of giving up your writing, you were never cut out to be a writer in the first place. If you really want to succeed, you won’t give up, no matter how discouraged you get. And rest assured (as most of you already know), you WILL find ample opportunities to be discouraged as you plod your way to success. If you bear with me through today’s blog, I promise to balance it with an encouraging blog next time.

The best way I know to discourage you is to let the pros do it. So here are observations by some writers who paid the price for their success. They knew discouragement even more intimately than you do. Following that, I’ll close with the most discouraging quotes about writing I could find. I make no apologies for using authors of the past (all now dead) as examples. I think we learn best from those who devoted their lives to becoming great writers. 

First up, let’s consider the very prolific Taylor Caldwell. She has been gone for quite a few years now, but she wrote some real blockbusters in her day (Testimony of Two Men, Dear and Glorious Physician, Great Lion of God, etc). After an exhausting childhood and early adulthood, Taylor Caldwell, at age twenty, started writing seriously in hopes of becoming successful. It was 18 years later her first novel was published. During those 18 years, she wrote six unpublished novels, collecting rejection slip after rejection slip. “I spent every penny I could save out of a tiny salary to send my novels to publishers,” she said. “There was rarely any evidence my submitted manuscripts had been read, and frequently the precious stamps I enclosed for return postage for the manuscripts were confiscated by someone in the publishing house and the manuscript returned to me, collect.”

Would you persevere for 18 years, enduring such rejection?

Next, let’s consider the late Louis L’Amour. He says, “If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write; write whenever, wherever, however, but write. Don’t wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn on the faucet before the water starts to flow.” About his work habits, he says, “I work never less than five hours a day at the typewriter, that is, occasionally as much as fourteen….I have no hobbies. Hobbies are for idle time and I have none. All my activities: hiking, shooting, tracking, learning about plants and animals are geared to my work…..As to discipline, my wife says I’m the most disciplined person she knows….my schedule might seem very rough to some, but to me it is the essence of living.”

How about you? Are you disciplined about your writing? Have you arranged your “hobbies” so that they all fit into the greater pursuit of writing?

In speaking about his writing, the late John Macdonald recounted several paragraphs of the agony he went through during his apprenticeship as a writer. Then he writes, “It is the memory of the amount of work it took to learn my trade that often makes me less than tolerant with the stranger who says earnestly, as though we share something special, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write.” When my mood is especially stringent, I answer, “Really! I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.”

Popular author Mary Stewart, when asked if the writing of her first book was easy, replied, “No. It was not easy, and no writer worth his salt every found it easy or ever will….writing is very hard work, and perhaps for that reason, can be very rewarding.”

James Michener says of his novels, “I write all my books slowly with two fingers on an old typewriter and the actual task of getting the words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough to be used in the first draft, not even important personal letters, so I am required to write everything at least twice. Important work, like a novel, must be written over and over, up to six or seven times. For example, my novel Hawaii went very slowly and needed constant revision. Since the final version contained about 500,000 words, and since I wrote it all many times, I had to type, in my painstaking fashion, about 3,000,000 words.” He goes on to recount his research time before he even began writing the novel. He consulted “several thousand” books in his research and says “there were about 500 that I kept in my office.” He also conducted about 200 interviews, each lasting two to three hours. Now that’s research….and part of the writing process.

Discouraged yet? Maybe these quotes will finish you off…

William Styron: “[If you’re a writer] loneliness is your companion for life. If you don’t want to be lonely, get into TV.”

Georges Simenon: “Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”

Rebecca West: “It’s a nauseous process.”

Jessamyn West: “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

John Steinbeck: “A good writer always works at the impossible.”

Andre Gide: “If a young person can refrain from writing, he shouldn’t hesitate to do so.”

No matter your age, Gide’s words still hold true. Only write if you find it’s impossible that you not write.

If you’re still with me next week, I’ll offer some encouraging words.

A few days ago I consulted by e-mail with a high-level person in the ABA (secular) publishing world. He had agreed to let me bounce an idea off of him to see if it might fit in the ABA world. This idea was about a genre I’d like very much to write in.

That night I composed my impressive e-mail to him, just sure he would jump out of his skin with excitement over my sure-to-be-a-bestseller idea for this genre. I sent the e-mail late at night and since he’s in New York City, I knew he would get the email and hopefully respond (salivating with excitement) by the next morning.

When I woke up, I grabbed my iPad by the side of my bed and opened my e-mail. Ta-da! YES. He had answered. But his answer wasn’t what I had hoped for. In fact, he gave his perspective that this one particular genre that I long to write in was “dead” and that I should forget ever trying to write in that genre. He was pretty ruthless about it, too—not wishy-washy at all. I would be wasting my time, he said, to write in that genre.

Deep breath. Heavy sigh.

Now what do I do? What would YOU do?

Really, I see only two options. There are probably more, such as seek a second opinion, but to be honest, I think this guy was probably speaking the truth. A second opinion would likely only confirm what he told me. So basically, the two major options are:

A. Take the advice of this pro and drop the desire to write in my preferred genre. After all, by dropping what will likely be an exercise in futility, I will have more time to write in a genre that may succeed.

B. Ignore his advice and keep pushing to write in the genre I want to succeed in, even if the odds of success are small.

So which is it for you? Let’s say you want to write Amish time-travel novels. Or historical romances set in the ninth century. Or the true story of how your dear aunt prevailed over the end of her marriage and a cancer diagnosis. None of those are likely to succeed. So what’s your choice? A or B?

I know I’ll get some disagreement on this, but my choice is B. Let me explain why.

First, if you’ll check my archive, you’ll find the blog I wrote about having a project list with many viable ideas on it. I think there are more than 50 on my list right now. I’ll be happy to write and publish five of them in my lifetime. But I don’t know which five they will be. (Although I’ll admit it probably won’t be “Amish Kittens Run Wild” 🙂 ).

The genre that I queried the seasoned pro about accounts for only a few titles on my project list. Though I’m passionate about this genre, it’s not the only genre I’m passionate about or that I feel I can write confidently. That’s why I encourage writers to have long-range plans for their writing and not become dependent on one genre for their success.

Another reason to keep writing in a genre that may not succeed is that many breakthrough books are in fact in genres that no one predicted would succeed. Whether it’s Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, William Young’s The Shack, Jan Karon’s At Home in Mitford or Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, there’s just no way to know if YOURS might be the next breakthrough book. Sure, odds are against it. And you do have to realize that going into it. 

It took me a few hours of digesting what the pro told me (with a writer’s usual disappointment at such news), but within those few hours I went from A to B. My initial reaction was to just forget the whole thing. Pull out my projects list and scratch off every project in this dead-end genre. But by that evening, I had solidified my answer as B. And strongly so. I’ll even admit to a bit of “I’ll show him!” attitude. Generally I don’t recommend that response. I occasionally see it in new writers who don’t understand why I won’t consider their book about the secret Bible code that reveals who the anti-Christ really is. But sometimes news about why your proposed book will never succeed is just the right motivation to engender passionate writing about the subject. The obvious caveat here is that even as you write, you do know you’re engaging in an uphill battle AND that this project is not your only hope for success as a writer—you DO have other potential projects you’re working on. Also, realize that “B” was MY answer to the question. If your answer is “A,” that’s just as valid—as long as you’ve thought through your reasons. Sometimes abandoning a dead-end project or genre IS the best option.

So, there you have it. My choice was to:

1. Thank the pro for his advice. Mull it over. Take some time (a few hours) to process my disappointment.
2. Decide what to do with said advice. (In my case, I’m going to let it strengthen my resolve that this genre is one that I’m committed to, even if I fail).
3. Not put all my eggs in this one basket. Keep several writing interests alive, not just this one pet genre that may never see the light of day.

And when I find a publisher who LOVES my writing in that preferred genre, you will be the second to know. That industry pro will be the first!

I thought about making this blog entry about my time at Mount Hermon this past week. But there was just so much, I don’t know where to begin. Parts of that experience will no doubt surface in upcoming blogs. Suffice to say you need to be there next year or at some other conference later this year. It’s important to your writing career. (By the way, the keynoter next year at Mount Hermon will be Liz Curtis Higgs. You won’t want to miss her!).

Instead of recounting Mount Hermon, I see that the time before last I said: “next time I’ll offer a couple of reasons proposals never get past my desk to make it to the committee level.” Easy enough. Here we go…

1. The easiest rejections are those that are not even close to being what we want. Usually these are unsolicited and very amateurish. Letters written in pen on binder paper yanked from a three-hole binder or a notebook do not get much attention. And, of course, the author will never know because there was no SASE. I get submissions almost every day without an SASE or that in some other way shouts “Reject me!”

2. Personal experience proposals are pretty quickly rejected. Not because I want to, necessarily, but because we have not found them to sell well. I do know there are some books in this genre that succeed, but not for us. We stick to what works for us. So in this case, the take-away message for you is to be sure you’re sending your proposal or query to a publisher that publishes what you write.

3. Similarly, we get other types of non-fiction proposals that are not viable, topic-wise. Easy rejects, sorry to say.

4. Platform issues. If I find a proposal on a topic that interests me, I will look at the writing ability and the author’s ability to promote the book (the platform). If the writing ability is good but the platform isn’t there, I will either try to help the author overcome this obstacle or decide if a platform is really necessary for this book. It will surprise some of you to learn that not all non-fiction books need a platform. Some books are impulse items and the author’s credibility isn’t as important. An example of that is the book my friend Steve Miller and I did: The Best-Ever Christian Baby Name Book. Because of my limited platform, I often prepare proposals for books that I perceive as impulse items and then send them to an appropriate publisher.

5. If the topic is of interest and the author has a platform, but the writing is poor, I may determine to help the writer bring the writing up a few notches. If he or she is willing, I’ll schedule the proposal for the committee. If the writing is poor and I don’t think it’s fixable or if the author seems unwilling, that’s a rejection.

The above five reasons apply mostly to non-fiction. Let’s continue by looking at some reasons (a few of which are the same as for non-fiction) that are more likely to cause a fiction manuscript to be rejected.

6. The novel is in a genre that doesn’t sell for us: this includes fantasy, contemporary suspense, Biblical novels, etc.

7. Bad writing. This is often due to a violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle.

8. Lack of characterization skills. Simply put, the characters do not interest me, and I conclude they will not interest readers either.

9. A slow beginning. You have a page or less to capture my interest (and the interest of book browsers in Barnes and Noble). If I’m not pulled in almost immediately, the book is rejected. Slow beginnings are often (not always) indicated by a description of the weather or the landscape on the first page. That’s a personal no-no in my book. Sure, it can be done effectively and no I won’t reject a book for that reason alone. It’s just a red flag to me. Whatever follows has to be all the stronger to keep my interest.

10. Another pet irritant of mine is when an author of a historical novel uses descriptions or phrases (usually in dialogue) that are too contemporary for the time the novel is set. One such novel had two women driving a covered wagon across the mid-nineteenth century prairie. One of the women turned to the other and said something about thinking she was “pregnant.” Women back then did not use that word to describe their condition. Again, this is a case where I would not reject a novel on that basis alone, but it’s another red flag that screams “amateur.” If you’re going to write a historical novel, know how the people spoke back then.

11. The novel lacks what Henry James called “felt life.” I think of it in terms of the animation of the characters. Are these characters real to me as a reader who is willing to suspend his disbelief? Or are they simply characters the author has called down from central casting to carry out a prearranged plot? Learn how to animate those lifeless characters!

12. Then, as with my earlier blog about why the committee says no, sometimes there is no logical explanation for my rejection. I may not feel right about the proposal for some unexplainable reason or it may have landed on my desk on an off day. Yes, that does happen from time to time. I think it happens to all of us. We simply aren’t prepared at that particular time to reach the same conclusion we might reach under different circumstances.

Finally, it must be added that ALL editors misjudge proposals and manuscripts from time to time. I’ve said yes to some proposals that did not turn out well as books. I’ve said no to some obviously excellent proposals whose excellence was not apparent to me, but was to another editor. Naturally, that’s one reason I tell authors who have been rejected a few times to keep trying elsewhere. And, too, it’s why I keep submitting my own proposals that have been rejected by editors who can’t fathom the excellence before them. 🙂

Hope this helps.

By the way, I couldn’t find the previous suggestions for blog topics that I thought I had. If you have a suggestion, try again in the comments section.

I have a new blog percolating in my mind, but it’s not ready yet. So, until then, I want to offer a few of my favorite famous rejections (taken from Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard).

Make sure these don’t happen to you!

* In 1962 Mary Higgins Clark received the following rejection for her novel Journey Back to Love: “We found the heroine to be as boring as her husband had.”

* Pearl Buck received these words concerning her manuscript for The Good Earth: “Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.”

* James Farrell’s manuscript was returned with this note: “Although these manuscripts are physically a mess, they are also lousy.”

* The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected with these words: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

* Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the Perry Mason mysteries was rejected with: “The characters talk like dictionaries, the so-called plot has whiskers on it like Spanish moss hanging from a live oak in a Louisiana bayou.”

* Kon-Tiki was rejected with: “The idea of men adrift on a raft does have a certain appeal, but for the most part this is a long, solemn, and tedious Pacific voyage.”

* Tony Hillerman’s book The Blessing Way was rejected with: “If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.”

* Here’s a great one: William Kennedy’s Ironweed earned this interesting rejection. “I like
William Kennedy, but not enough. He’s a very good writer….and his characters are terrific. I cannot explain turning this down.”

* George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

* Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is now being made into a movie. But the book was first rejected as “…much too long…I regret to say that the book is unsaleable and unpublishable.”

* Dr. Seuss’s first book And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street was rejected as “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

One of my favorites is Samuel Johnson’s rejection to an aspiring writer: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”


For a final parting shot, I’ll end with the succinct reply Oscar Wilde got for Lady Windermere’s Fan:

“My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.”

Never let rejection get you down…at least not for too long. Like maybe five minutes. Editors can wrong. I was wrong once a few years back. 🙂

I’m sure I touched on dealing with setbacks and discouragement in my earlier series on How to Succeed as a Christian Writer, but today I want to revisit it for a minute. Not surprisingly, this is due to a bout with discouragement I had earlier this week. Yes, even after eight or so books, I still face discouragement. Not as often as I used to, praise the Lord, but every so often I still hear the inner voice that says, Pack it in, Nick. You’ve done all the writing God has for you. You’re at the end of your road. Enjoy life. You don’t need any more rejection. Maybe the voices in your head say slightly different things, but the result is the same: dejection and a sense that maybe you should take up bungee-jumping or macramé or something else that will prove more productive and less stressful (bungee-jumping certainly qualifies there).

Well, thankfully, my melancholy mood passed rather quickly and I’m now able to once again face the blank computer screen with hope. Some of you, though, are likely to be in the midst of a bout with the writing blues. I know some of you wish you were on your way to ACFW…but aren’t. Others of you recently got word of a rejection. Still others are facing writer’s block or some other writing-based trauma that’s causing you to consider chucking it all.

Below are three suggestions on how to handle discouragement that have worked for me. Earlier this week, it was idea number one that got me through.

1. Just hang on and wait it out. Time heals this wound rather quickly. In the midst of my dejection earlier this week, I told myself, Nick, just get a grip. Sure you feel like throwing your computer out the window right now….but give it a day or two. Then you can do the window thing if you still feel this way. Sure enough, the mood did eventually lift. My computer is safe and the window remains intact.

2. Browse at a local bookstore. Read the opening pages of a few books in the genre in which you want to write. For me, being around books is therapeutic, no matter what my problem. A trip to Barnes and Noble is cheaper than an hour on a psychiatrist’s couch. Get a nice mocha while you’re there and just browse and relax and don’t worry about your latest failure.

3. Commiserate with a good writing buddy. I have to laugh as I write this one. During my misery this week, I emailed one of my closest writing friends and basically cried on his shoulder, knowing he’d sympathize. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back saying that he hasn’t faced discouragement as a writer since he was a beginner. (Okay, window, get ready. Computer comin’ through!).

Other ideas include listening to a specific genre of music, walking through a cemetery (I’m sure you’ll want to hear more about that in another blog), or just getting some exercise at a gym or taking a long, long walk.

Those are some things that work for me, what works for you?