My Best Writing Advice Summed Up in Six Words
You ready for it? Here it is:
Don't Be So Hard On Yourself.
I'll extrapolate below.
I was inspired to write today's post thanks to this Youtube video (see below) by YA writer Alexa Donne. In this thirteen minute video, Alexa discusses why it's okay for writers to give up on writing projects--even those they've spent years pouring themselves into. Believe it or not, there are several reasons it is appropriate to "shelf a book." In case you don't feel like watching the video, I'll sum it up for you:
1. You're still learning the craft of writing and (quite honestly) you're not good yet (which is okay).
2. The story isn't working and may never work, no matter how many times you write it; the story does not have novel-length potential.
3. If you're going the traditional publishing route (rather than the self-publishing route), the timing isn't right. Maybe your book doesn't quite fit into the market at the moment.
Why am I bringing this up in regard to my writing advice? Because giving up on a project can feel like admitting defeat. Alexa Donne had to shelf two books. After finding an agent for the first book and shopping her manuscript around to twenty-seven editors at publishing houses, she called it quits. Her second book didn't make it through the querying round (she and her first agent had parted ways after the failure to sell the first book), and she couldn't find a new agent to represent her second book. Here's what she said about it:
"If nobody wants this book that is so me, then they don't want me."
That is to say, it is extremely easy to take rejection personally when you are an artist. And it is extremely frustrating to receive rejections after months or years of devotion to a project. I say this because I made the decision to shelf my first work in progress this summer. After writing, rewriting, editing, handing it off to beta readers, spending over a thousand dollars on professional edits, sending it off to fifty agents, I knew it was time to set the book I had written nine times over--the book I'd been writing since I was seventeen--on the shelf. Or throw it out the window.
Why did I do this?
Here's a little bit about the traditional publishing process, in case you're unfamiliar. Once you write and polish your manuscript, you query literary agents who represent your genre. Depending on the agent, you'll usually send your query letter along with sample pages (sometimes ten pages, sometimes three chapters), and occasionally a synopsis. If the agent's interest is piqued, they'll request a partial manuscript. A few months later, if they like it, they'll request the full manuscript. Give it a few more months, and the agent will offer representation if they believe your manuscript can sell.
I never generated enough interest in my manuscript to move beyond the querying stage. No agent requested more material. Not even one. And no amount of tweaking my query letter or opening pages changed that. The biggest problem is that it's too long. YA debuts should be in the 60k-80k range. Mine is over 100k. I didn't follow the rules. I promise I tried.
So I turned to my second book--the one I've alluded to a few times on this blog. I've actually been working on it for two years as my secondary project. I worked on it as I waited for feedback from betas and editors, and then as I anticipated responses from agents on the first book.
I finished the first draft on August twentieth.
Again, why am I mentioning all this? It's the backstory for the point of this post: don't be so hard on yourself. I don't know where you are in your writing journey--if you're just starting out, if you're drafting your first book, if you're convincing yourself to let people read it, if you're querying, if you're on submission, if you feel like a failure....
But don't be so hard on yourself.
But what if I'm not that good?
I couldn't tell you. You may be an excellent writer, or you may be trash. Writers tend to be extremely self-critical (shout out to my Ones of the Enneagram), but even if you're truly not good, it doesn't matter. As long as you keep at it--as long as you ask for feedback--you will probably get better. Don't get bogged down trying to perfect the first draft. Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. The best, cleanest, first draft will be bad anyway. You can always clean it up the second, third, fourth, fifth time around. Give yourself permission to be trash.
And don't be so hard on yourself.
But what if I can't handle the criticism?
I feel this one in my bones. I used to hate sharing my writing. I still do, honestly, even though I subjected myself to the criticism of my peers during four years of college writing classes, and even though I've shared my first book with a half-dozen readers. It's so easy to wrap our identity up in our writing--to believe that we are what we write.
But that could not be more untrue. You are not your writing. And your writing is not you. If your writing is you, then your writing is glorifying you. While it's true that art is a form of self expression, good art is not about the artist. If it is about us, we become outraged when others criticize, disagree with, or disregard our art, because it feels like they are criticizing us, as well.
I'm not saying that art isn't vulnerable or intensely personal. I cried when I got my first query rejection email, and I hadn't even read the email yet to find out whether or not it was a rejection (it was). But now--this summer--shelving the book of my adolescence and young adulthood, I'm choosing not to be hard on myself. To consider myself a failure. Or a waste of time.
What I created was an expression of my deepest fears, insecurities, and convictions. I created something that I am extremely proud of, and I still have confidence that it will be published one day. That day has simply not yet come.
I remind myself, too, that there are readers who resonated with it. Those who didn't resonate with it may be rejecting my art, but they are not rejecting me. They are rejecting something that is not quite their cup of tea. And that's okay.
In other words, this process has taught me not to be so self-critical or self-deprecating. It has taught me to be patient with myself. It doesn't matter that agents have rejected my book fifty times over. It doesn't matter that my writing is imperfect, or that my mom will find at least two typos after I publish this blog post (thanks, Mom). It matters that I keep doing what I love because it gives me joy. So if I can do it, you can too.
Don't be so hard on yourself.