Letter to Seton Hall MFA Students (and anyone else who wants to write a book)
(I received a request to write a letter of encouragement to the MFA students in the Seton Hall Writing Popular Fiction program. Of course, because I’m running late with the holidays and deadlines and such, it may not reach them in time. So, I’m posting it here. 🙂 )
January 2, 2013
Dear Seton Hall MFA Students:
Symantha wrote and asked me to put together a letter of encouragement. I am by no means an expert, but I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned along the way.
First, what you’re doing is very brave. Never doubt that. It takes a lot of guts to make a commitment to your writing. You’ve done that by enrolling in this program, and that’s a huge step. So, on the days when the writing is not going well or you’ve just gotten another rejection (it happens to ALL of us), know that you are leaps and bounds ahead of most people simply by sticking your neck out and really trying.
I was at a convention once before being published, and one of the speakers asked if we knew the difference between a published author and an unpublished one. Lots of people volunteered the expected answers: talent, luck, contacts in the industry, etc.
The real answer? Persistence.
I’ve never met an author who wasn’t rejected over and over again at some point in his/her career. It happens. What separates the men from the boys, so to speak, is the willingness to keep going. To keep learning, keep writing, keep trying. Those of us who make it have one thing in common: we didn’t quit. Sometimes out of nothing more than sheer obstinance.
“Never tell me the odds.” I’m a huge Star Wars fan and that quote from Han Solo is one that I kept repeating to myself during my writing and publishing journey. Still do. Well-meaning people, including friends and family, will be full of statistics, trying to help you see the impossibility of writing a book/finding an agent/getting a book published/whatever.
Ignore them. Smile politely, thank them, and scour those frightening numbers right out of your head. Because here’s the thing: it happens. People write books, find agents and get published. It serves no purpose to focus on depressing statistics. Because that’s not going to be you. You are going to navigate the asteroid field of publishing with flair. You have to believe that.
Write the story you love. Nope, it might not sell. My first one didn’t. But I learned a hell of a lot, and you will, too. Keep chasing a story you’re passionate about. (There will be lots of them, so don’t hold onto one like it’s a life raft that’s slowly deflating. That’s another lesson I learned the hard way).
And don’t write to the market or what’s popular now (unless you also happen to be desperately passionate about it). Two reasons. First, the books that are on the shelves this week were likely acquired a year or two ago. Editors may be incredibly tired of post-apocalyptic zombie space stories (or whatever) by now. So, it doesn’t help you. Second, if you’re not feeling the love for this story, it’s going to be much harder on you. With every book I’ve ever written, there have been frustrating periods, sometimes long ones, where I wanted nothing more than to burn that pile of pages on a funeral pyre. And I LOVED each and every one of those books at the beginning. If you start without that love, ugh. I can’t imagine pushing through those moments without the memory of those positive feelings.
Enjoy this time. I know you’re going to hate me for saying that because I hated it when someone said it to me. But that doesn’t make it bad advice. Use this time to get to know yourself as a writer. How your process works, what kind of stories speak to you, what your voice sounds like. Once you have contracts coming in, there will be a lot more pressure and way less time for figuring all of that out. Being published is not a magical cure-all for the doubt and angst you may be feeling right now. If anything, it only makes it worse because now you’ve got something to lose.
And finally, two bits of practical advice disguised as wishful thinking:
1) Write the book jacket copy. Do it at the beginning or in the middle or when you’re stuck. That snappy bit of writing will help you define your book and keep you excited about your project.
2) Go to the bookstore and look at the place on the shelf where your book will be. Memorize that space. Own it. Well, not literally. Most bookstores won’t be thrilled if you set up camp in their aisles. But mentally, make it your own. Call it up in your head when you’re feeling low and discouraged. That space is waiting for your book. That space is waiting for YOU.
Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep trying. That’s the most important part.
All my best,
Young Adult Author of The Ghost and the Goth trilogy (Hyperion) and the upcoming Project Paper Doll series (Hyperion)
(cross-posted at staceykade.tumblr.com )