Advice to Novelists: Never, Never, Never Give Up!
By Kathy Brown Ramsperger
I earned my first university fiction award at 16, then my high school’s English award, then my university alma mater’s fiction award. I’ve never had writer’s block, and I was taught by professors who groomed people for Pulitzer Prizes. I thought I was set for the writing life, and for a while, I was.
I was a journalist first, researching then writing for National Geographic publications, then Kiplinger publications. I began to get my poetry and fiction published, too. I took my time writing my second novel, concentrating on stories, poems, and articles. My university advisor told me it wasn’t the right time to publish, that the 1980s publishing industry was in transition.
And then my advisor’s wife’s first novel appeared the next year. Lesson learned. There will never be a better time to write and publish than NOW.
I began to write for the Red Cross, eventually becoming Head of Publications at the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. I also edited their nonfiction books, including their 125th anniversary history, and eventually switched to facilitate writing instead of doing it myself. I missed it.
Back Stateside, I opened my own copywriting business. Then 9/11, Melanoma, and motherhood made me realize that I didn’t have all the time in the world to rekindle my first love, the novel. I enrolled in workshops and wrote in any moment I could find. I wrote on napkins, sticky notes, my skin. My first draft of Incongruent (now The Shores of Our Souls) was complete in ten months’ time. I came up with a good second draft with the help of my beloved writing group (founded in a Bethesda [MD] Writer’s Center workshop). Called “We Seven,” founded in 2002, we still celebrate the successes and offer TLC for the challenges the 21st century writer faces.
I began to send queries, according to the latest and most professional advice I could find. The Internet gave me more information than ever before. The prevailing wisdom in the early part of this century was to submit to an agent, one query at a time, and wait for an answer. Whatever, you do, I was told, don’t contact them more than once! Often, I would wait six months for any answer, and sometimes the answer never came. It was almost always a quick form email. My mentors told to wait it out, the right agent would come, and then they would tell me if I needed to revise, and how.
No one ever did. So I began attending national workshops, investigating MFA programs, reading more about the marketing business and less about the writing craft. It was tough work, as more of my waking time was spent selling and less telling stories, but I believed (and still believe) in my novel.
To date, I’ve sent 200 queries, a few requested full manuscripts, and I’ve had face-to-face contact with scores of agents, a few publishers, and hundreds of other renowned writers, including some best-selling authors like the late Eudora Welty, Marita Golden, and John Perkins. All but Ms. Welty read portions of my novel, and I followed their suggestions. I also sent the novel to a substantive editor, a few proofreaders, and two developmental editors, one of whom offered extremely helpful comments. My only frustration: The more I sent the novel out, the more difficult revision came, because editing is a subjective art, not a science. Professionals would give me paradoxical advice. One would tell me to change the protagonist; the next would tell me to change the antagonist. One would tell me to cut a chapter, and the next would tell me to expand it. I found it more difficult to maintain my story arc. I was listening to too much advice because I wanted to improve my novel.
My most recent, encouraging rejection: “Although your manuscript seems a unique idea, we regret to inform you of our decision not to pursue further collaboration at this time.”
How do I know that’s a personal rejection? A typo, and the words “unique idea.” That’s often the only clue you’ll get.
Yet triumphs do occur as well.
Right after I attended a New York Pitch Conference, something strange but wonderful happened. I was in my car ready to drive to work, when my husband ran out, saying there was an agent on the phone! I practically fell over my feet on my way to the phone. She said she’d fallen in love with my first 50 pages and requested the whole novel. She said she loved the idea of a trilogy, and then we emailed back and forth all week. “Give me some time to read the whole thing, and I’ll get back to you,” she said. She never did. I sent her another email this week.
I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I use what I’ve learned to facilitate writer’s groups. I’m now a life coach, and I’ve helped many others get published. I also help people get over creative blocks and submission procrastination. I speak to English classes in the public school system about how writing is about self-expression and publishing is about sharing. How publication may be the goal, but writing is our life mission.
I’m glad I haven’t given up, and it’s the advice I would give any writer. However, I am now searching for a hybrid publisher, someone I’ll pay to edit and market the book—take it to the next level. I believe that these publishers are the wave of the future. If I don’t get a contract with a hybrid publisher, I’ll opt for self-publishing. However, I would rather not market this book alone, although a friend and head of an MFA program recently advised me to do so. “If I had it to do all over again,” she said, “I’d self-publish. I would be able to make a better living that way.”
Based on my experience, here’s my advice to new novelists:
- Stop lingering or procrastinating. Seize today! Write every chance you get. What do we own that is more precious than our story? What if your story will help change the world? Now go write.
- Take rejection as acceptance. I call my rejection slips “permission slips to proceed.” I learn from most of them. I even learn persistence from the form letters. Most agents and editors are nice; they don’t want to hurt our feelings. Yet they have to see us as a long-term investment; otherwise, their business might fold. That’s why so many are looking for authors with either a track record or a trilogy. Yet even in rejection, the more they tell us, the more they want our novels to succeed. It’s finding the right fit at the right time. It’s like finding our life partner.
- Write a lot. Revise more. But not too much. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere,” said writer Anne Lamott. Know your characters. Know how one of their actions would lead to their next action or reaction. Listen to advice, but ask your characters if they agree with it. Take good advice, and leave the rest.
- If you have a unique idea, consider all forms of publishing. The field is open wide right now. If you can’t compare your novel to another novel, then it may need to wait while your more commercial idea gets published—if you want a contract from a commercial publisher. Or consider hybrid or self-publishing. “You never write the easy way,” a colleague teases me. I think I should have considered other publishing routes early or tried to publish a more conventional story.
- If you can’t find a literary agent, try to meet publishers in person. In-person conferences have increased, so it’s possible. Yet I think most writers need an agent to escape the slush pile and to ensure a fair contract. Most agents I’ve spoken with are looking for a compelling voice, engaging characters, a believable story arc without holes in the plot, and that “I couldn’t put it down” quality. They want to fall in love with your story. They appreciate a novel that’s almost ready to publish, which means they want it typo-free and polished till it shines. They also want a novelist who works well with advice.
- Find an audience. Build a platform. Post on social media. Produce a YouTube video of yourself reading. Publish short stories and articles. You have to pave the way for yourself by writing, writing, writing, and finding readers. If you can identify a demographic, let them know about your novel once you’ve revised it a couple of times. Read in public places and online. Create an author’s website.
- Learn from your peers. Often younger writers straight out of an MFA program understand the publishing game better than those of us who got our creative writing degrees with an emphasis in literary fiction. More seasoned writers can explain the bigger publishing picture to you, and may have a considerable, influential network. Form a writing group. My writing group members have gone on with PhDs, MFAs, publication, and our lives, but we maintain a special bond—the bond of people brought together for a reason.
- Before you decide to proceed with self-publishing, give traditional publishing a chance. If you’ve spent significant time, money, and energy finding a traditional publisher, then determine your budget and how much time you’ll need to invest in another publishing format. Do you want print books, and if so how many? Do you want to warehouse your novels in your garage? If not, where? A publisher of any sort will bring you wisdom, visibility, and support that means that it’s worth my investment. Would you expect to get pregnant or start a business without investment of time and money? I wouldn’t. For me, publishing a novel is the mountain peak. Getting there can be fun and rewarding, too.
- Never give up. I have Winston Churchill’s famous quote as my screen saver: “Never, never, never give up. Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” That mindset made him Prime Minister of a country that overcame overwhelming odds and won a World War against a murderous dictator. Think what that kind of belief can do for your novel.
Your novel is your baby, your dream. The marketplace will continue to evolve at a fast, unwavering pace, just like the rest of the global economy. You have the opportunity to shine as an author like never before. Keep submitting. Look for new ways to highlight your work. And never, never, never give up.
Kathy Brown Ramsperger, a writer and life coach, lives in suburban Maryland with her husband, two teens, and two cats. You can find out more about her at http://groundonecoaching.com/. Her novel The Shores of Our Souls is an epic multicultural love story set against the backdrop of Arab/American global conflict. Find more about her novel at her author’s site, The Official Website of Author Kathryn Brown Ramsperger. You can also read her writing at yourtango.com, yahooparenting.com, thegoodmenproject.com, and the spring 2015 issue of Forge journal.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.