Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Write Stuff: Is the Focus on Publishing Hurting Aspiring Writers?

I get questions all the time from writers asking how to submit their novels to agents and publishers. I'm all for helping writers achieve their writing dreams (this blog is dedicated to that), but during these exchanges, I also see a lot of unhappy writer struggling with those dreams. This saddens me, because I remember what it was like to be one of those struggling writers.

There's only so much anyone can do to help, because each writer has to learn their craft on their own terms. You can find all the help you need, but if you're not ready for something someone teaches you, you won't learn it. Some things I understood very quickly, while other things took me years to figure out. There's no timetable for learning. You get it when you get it.(And sometimes that really sucks)

Writing is a skill like any other, and it takes time to develop that skill. While some writers looking to get published are ready, many of them aren't. Promising writers (be they 15 or 50) who might need a book or two more to polish their craft, are striving boldly into the harsh world of publishing and getting the snot kicked out of them.

I wonder how many stop writing, who otherwise wouldn't have.

I wonder how many turn bitter, thinking that it's impossible to get published.

I wonder how many would have had success, had they not tried for the end goal first.

When I find out someone plays piano or guitar, I don't ask if they plan to get a record contract or join an orchestra. I have a friend who acts in local theater, but I don't ask if she hopes for a career on Broadway one day. Acting is something she enjoys doing, and no one expects more of her. But writing seems different. It's like we're expected to want to get published, and if that isn't our end goal, we're wasting our time. As if folks think writing isn't worth doing if you aren't going to publish it. And not only that, but publish big.

When did this happen?

The plethora of advice and information out there now is both a blessing and a curse. I love the opportunities available to writers, but I do worry that it's raising expectations too much. When I was 14, I never dreamed about submitting a book to agents. I didn't even know what an agent was. But young writers are submitting -- and some are even getting published.

That's a whole lotta pressure for all of us. It lends itself to "well, if they can do it why can't I?" self doubt. And that's not fair because every writer is different. Every book is different, and comparing ourselves to other writers is a waste of energy and means nothing.

When you're learning, whether it's your craft or your story, I think "just writing" is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. You don't have to have an end goal of a book, let alone a publishing contract, in mind. It's probably not the healthiest thing to do, especially when you're starting out. Too-high expectations often lead to disappointments. Disappointment can lead to abandoning something you love. I think if more writers allowed themselves to just write, there would be a lot fewer frustrated writers in the world.

Give yourself permission to just write if you want to. Be free of the pressures to publish and enjoy what you do. If you decide to submit, go for it with gusto. If you decide to post on your website or blog instead, do it with pride.Write however it makes you happy, and don't feel your talent is judged solely on a publishing contract. And try not to judge other writers by that same criteria (we've all been guilty of this at some point, haven't we?)

What matters is that you enjoy the writing. Because if you don't enjoy it, what's the point?

What are your writing goals right now? For fun? To learn? To submit? To publish?

Other articles on similar topics:
Putting the con in confidence
Querying too soon
Don't let your novel take over your life
Yep, writing can be hard


  1. Such a nice post! :) *bookmarks this page* I agree, we should enjoy the actual writing rather than focus on publishing, etc. Two of my trunk novels are too 'personal' to be published -- and when I realised that I just couldn't send them out, I sort of felt like I'd fallen short. But, eventually, I realised I still really liked them both, and I'd had fun writing them, which was what really mattered. Another one of my novels got rejected by every agent I sent it to -- and I realised it was because there is absolutely no market for it. Which was kind of painful at first. But, again, I like the novel, so I don't care about that anymore. I'm starting a new novel soon -- would be nice if it could get published, but I think I'll be OK if it can't.

  2. I agree with Wendy. This is a great post. For a long time I continued writing a series even though I knew that (for the moment) the market wasn't there and that it does need some revisions. But I was having so much fun writing it and letting a select few read it that the rejection I'd received for that particular piece stung much less than it might otherwise have done so. I have, however, laid that project aside for the moment. It's not finished; nevertheless, I do intend to go back to it after completing my current project, which I hope to submit to an agent in the future.

  3. I LOVE the guitar and acting comparison you make! e

  4. Wonderful post! Loved the great comparison you made with the music and acting :)

    Right now my focus is learning the craft and for the fun of getting all the stories simmering in my brain on paper. My long term goal is to publish. I'm trying to avoid all the publishing news out there at the moment because it is distracting. Not to mention by the time I'm ready to look at publishing (whether indie or traditional) it will likely have changed.

  5. Fabulous post. I think it's important to know what you want but understand it takes time to get there. I didn't realize what I wanted to do or be until I was 23. I picked up a pad of paper and started writing. It hit me that being a writer is exactly what I needed to be. I haven't looked back since.

    That being said it's been a tough road. You first expect that you are to write a novel and then it's published. Just like that. That easy. You do get frustrated when you realize that's no where near correct. I've been writing for 2 years and between bad novels and bad querying I've learned a whole lot. I've learned the hard way but nonetheless I know the process and the tolls the writing world takes.

    It's all worth it.

  6. Hmm. I usually agree/love what you say, but I'm going to jump in as a dissenting voice. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. I read the whole SFWA website thereafter and learned that real writers send out manuscripts, and how you need enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room before you get published. So, I started a new novel, submitted the first one to publishers, and collected my rejection slips. It was kind of cool -- they didn't know I was some kid. I got real rejection letters! Sometimes I did make mistakes (I forgot a SASE once), but that was fine, because this wasn't some magnum opus. I taught any of my friends who wrote how to submit to magazines, because that's what "real" writers do, and actually submitting was the only validation I needed.

    I got in a nice pattern of submitting, and was surprised when stories started coming back with personalized rejections saying "Send us more!" If I'd waited until I felt I was "good enough," I'd probably fall into a trap of perfectionism and never submit. A rejection letter's no big deal for me now because I've had so many. It's just part of the business, part of becoming a published author.

    Also, submitting itself is a skill. Like I said, I made a few mistakes early on, but now it's rote habit to submit something -- I've learned how to do it and where the markets are, so all I have to worry about now is making the writing clean.

    I guess it's all about expectations. I expected to be in this for the long haul and collect a lot of rejections. Keeping track of submissions also gave me a real idea of how much I was writing, and often encouraged me to write more. If a story got a rejection, I'd send it out again and write another one.

  7. Wendy: That's a good attitude. It does take some of the pressure off yourself and let's you enjoy the process.

    Rebbecca: I used to be one of those who agreed with the whole "don't write the series until you've sold the first" camp, but after being through it, I say write it if you want. There are benefits to it, and if the muse is working and you're enjoying it, so be it. If you want to wait, that's great to. Pros and cons to both and it really does depend on the author's goal.

    E: Thanks! It's so true :)

    Raelyn: That's another good reason to not get too deep into it. Things change, and with the changes right now, it can be discouraging. Heck, I'm published and I find it discouraging sometimes.

    Jen: It is worth it. I'm happy to hear so many speak positively, so maybe the focus isn't doing too much damage :)

    MK: Oh, disagree away, LOL. I posed a question and I want to hear opinions on it. My experience was like yours (though I read the books since there was nothing online when I started), and I hope we're the norm. I've just run into enough writers who really beat them selves up because their first or second novel they ever tried to write didn't go anywhere. Breaks my heart to see them so upset over it when that's pretty normal for the biz.

  8. Wow--never thought of it that way. I generally admire community theatre actors--and even amateur fine-artists--but sorta look down on those who dabble in writing stories for fun. That now seems tremendously unfair.

    I like you. You make me think. :)

    **Toddles off to change her world-view**

  9. It depends a bit on the person. Some realise that it's okay if they don't start getting acceptances immediately. Those people will keep working on their writing while they're submitting. But there are an unfortunate number who end up only focusing on the idea of being published, rather than improving their writing. Often they'll be the ones who complain agents are evil and just can't see their genius, before self-publishing a book that isn't ready.

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  11. I know what you mean… I am in the middle of learning how to write a descent sentence. At least I acknowledge I have a lot to learn and won’t give up until I get there.

    I believe having the goal to get published, helps. It make you get better, it makes you strive to reach the highest writing level you can. I could give up after 25 revisions and self publish, blaming the publishing community for not see my greatness.

    But I don’t. If I can’t get published it’s because my writing needs tightening, or my story lacks the right plot points, or my characters are weak or the story isn’t marketable…

    Having the goal to be a better writer goes hand in hand, with the desire to get published.

    I have read some horrible books, so getting published doesn’t mean I am a great writer, but it does mean I am a good one.

  12. My goal all of the above. I will not set myself up for failure. I know what I can, and can't do. I have tons to learn. But, I seek and learn with gratitude and joy. If I never get published I will still be so thrilled that I wrote my book. And I'm sure I'll write another. And another, and so on. If one day I hit a home run, awesome. If not, I'm just having a great time playing the game.

  13. Janice this is an awesome post. Very well stated and I'm sure many people/writers will come away from this with gratitude. Some may even adopt the attitude you describe in the post of patience. Some of course will not. I love writing. My end goal is to be published but I'm not rushing it. I did when I first started. But if I had read a post like this I would have checked myself and waited, been more patient and learned the craft of writing more. It's so important to learn first but so many people skip that step. It's sad. Thanks for such an amazing post. Many newbie writers should read this.

  14. This was the perfect article for me to read today. Thanks Janice, your site is always such a wonderful help both in the craft and lifestyle of writing. Just want you to know it is always appreciated.

  15. Robin: Whoohoo!

    Polenth: This is true. I don't think it's an all or nothing situation, but I do wonder about the impact.

    Jeff: I agree with having a goal. That was something that did help me push on when times were hard.

    Orlando: Awesome attitude :)

    Dawn: Thanks! I wonder if it's a conscious choice to skip a step or just that they see what they're "supposed" to do and don't realize they're skipping steps?

    Gene: Aw, thanks so much :) I do appreciate hearing the blog helps.

  16. I first wrote a munch longer and more brutish response, but realized I will only upset people who embody the positive and patient mindset you others who've commented before me strive for.

    But I ask this of anyone who love books, language and reading ad I do

    Is it not possible to love writing and still want to be published? 

    I only ask this because the point of this specific post and replies to it have all been in the vein of 

    "we don't have to be paid pros at something we love to love it" and I'm really not trying to devalue that or even mean to imply that in the least, but can't you want both and be no less sincere?

  17. Taurean: It's totally possible. I think the general feeling here, is that a lot of writers would write even if they never got published. They love doing it first.

    I don't know anyone write because it'll make them rich and famous. Sure, they may hope one days it does (that's the dream) but that's not WHY they picked up the pen.

    My whole question here was, is it detrimental for writers just starting out to think they HAVE to publish the first words they put on paper? Most writers toil for years before they reach a professional level. I don't know the answer to that (hence the post), but I've met enough frustrated writers who are still working on their skills, but feel they ought to be at the end of their journey. How much does the constant "here's all this info about publishing" out there adding to that frustration?

  18. I don't have the answers either, Janice, and like you I've asked myself the same questions, and am no closer to answers to many of them for myself, let alone anyone else.

    Sometimes not feeling alone is all we need to re-motivate ourselves, but I think for my particular case, I need to just be willing to take risks with my writing. Not just the usual "Don't be afraid to fail" type of stuff, which your blog talks about honestly without making you feel even more hopeless about all the uncertainty involved with it, but more just allowing myself to write outside my comfort zone and genres, and find joy in that, instead of self-inferiority.

    But what I need to do first, is reclaim the love of reading I lost in parts when I made publication one of my long-term goals.

    I wish you nothing but good fortune for Darkfall's release, and I don't just mean money-wise, so I hope you'll wish me well for restoring the passionate reader I was once, and know I still am, but who got lost along the way.

    I'm not the quitter I was once, but I wish I was more patient with myself.

    For me the simple act of being patient with yourself will be a miracle for me to achieve in and of itself.

  19. I agree that in this world of 'money means success' there's lots of pressure to publish and publish 'big'. But I'd also reassure my fellow writers that with the new advances we've made in technology, you can get your stuff out there on the internet... and if your goal is to be read, you can achieve that without Penguin or Random House. And remember, if only one person's life is enhanced by what you've written, that's something big too!

    Check out my website:

  20. I definitely agree with this completely. As an author I have been trying self publishing a book . So far it has been a struggle, but I know it will pay off in the long run.

  21. The one good thing about all the turmoil and change in the industry the last few years, is that there are a lot more options for writers. We don't have to all go the same route. You can even "publish" on a blog and reach reader in a casual way if you want, without having to suffer the pressures of publishing if you want to.