Writing (in) a draft

Lee Goldberg has some interesting things to say (Oct 19) about rejection’e2’80’94or rather, passes on some interesting takes on his book from jaundiced editorial eyes. Nearly twenty letters turning him down, and the book goes on, when finally published, to great reviews.

As I read through the above paragraph, an intriguing thing pops out at me: His BOOK goes on to do well, but HE is the one who got turned down.

Yes, rejection is personal. Anyway, it feels that way, especially when it happens time and again, and when it’e2’80’99s your baby who is being rejected. A soccer mom whose kid fails to make the cut at least doesn’e2’80’99t have her salary slashed as a result. A writer whose much-loved project knocks on door after door, hoping for warmth and welcome but finding only a reintroduction to the street, feels that very real street outside, looming.

There ain’e2’80’99t no guarantees in the writing business. It’e2’80’99s scary even to mention the possibility, as if failure is a demon summoned by voicing his name, but it’e2’80’99s very true, it’e2’80’99s waiting just outside. I’e2’80’99ve got sixteen books out there, sold a couple million copies, had titles on the New York Times list, and still, every day I feel the cold draft at the bottom of the door. My accountant talks about SEP accounts, and I think, well, that may be necessary. My husband asks if we’e2’80’99re going to have the money for some project or another, and I have to tell him I don’e2’80’99t know.

You’e2’80’99d think I would be the last person able to function with that degree of uncertainty in her life. I’e2’80’99m a fairly structured person; I like things more or less tidy; it annoys me when people are late, and annoys me enormously when I am late. How can I blithely sail into the end of the year not knowing how many zeros will be on my income return the following?

In part, I think, it helps to sneak into the whole writing-as-income thing backwards. When I started, my husband was earning well, and my income was supplement’e2’80’94for example, my advance from Sweden bought central heating, so we only had to use the wood stove when we wanted to. (It was a Scandinavian wood stove, too: I liked the balance of events.) By the time he retired and I was earning with some regularity, it was too late to remember that my earning was at the whims of fortune.

So how do you keep on, feeling that cold breeze moving around your ankles?

You keep on the same way you keep on with whatever book you’e2’80’99re writing: one word at a time.

It helps a lot to be an efficient compartmentalizer, which I am. I focus on what’e2’80’99s at hand, put aside the less pressing and those things I can’e2’80’99t do anything about yet, and try to sweat about only those things I can change. I may not feel I can do anything about the quality of my first draft, but I can certainly move on with the quantity, so I keep writing. I can’e2’80’99t do anything about the state of the publishing market or the tastes of the reading public, but I can keep writing, so I do. I can’e2’80’99t do anything about the overall plot or character development on the manuscript that’e2’80’99s sitting on my desk at the moment, because my editor would kill me and the mortgage company would repossess if I said I needed another six months on it, but I can do something about the copy editor’e2’80’99s wrong corrections and the occasional clumsy phrase that catches my eye, so I do.

I suppose it’e2’80’99s something like the Wright Brothers must have felt. Long, painstaking, mistake-strewn months when you can’e2’80’99t even see the body of what you’e2’80’99re building; then the slow, exciting coming together of wings and wheels, props and flaps; and finally the moment when it’e2’80’99s all together, when you climb in, pull down your goggles, and mail it off to New York.

It’e2’80’99s an exhilarating fifteen-second ride.

And then you pull up your laptop and get started on the next one.

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  1. KB on October 20, 2005 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks, Laurie. I’m going to clip this one and save it. Read it now and then. And, then read it a few more times!

  2. Rebecca on October 20, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Collecting rejection letters has become a favorite hobby of mine of late, but last week I got the most encouraging one so far, a personal note from an editor explaining why he rejected the story and some suggestions for improving it. I just tell myself that if I keep on plugging long enough, SOMEDAY I’m bound to get published, though I don’t expect to ever be able to live just off my writing.

  3. Anonymous on October 20, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Before risking anything of value, it helps to know the only thing you can’e2’80’99t survive is your own death. My parents died when I was too young to be considered grown and too old to be adoptable. I put myself through college with a cruddy minimum wage job and a lot of odd writing jobs; my car was often my home. If I could write stories for a local newspaper and term papers worthy of A’e2’80’99s by the dashboard light, I can schlep this novel, and the next one, and the one after that to as many publishers as it takes. If I’e2’80’99m never published, if I never earn a dime, at least I’e2’80’99ll have an interesting story to tell when I’e2’80’99m old and defeated. Besides, I have much nicer car now.

  4. Anonymous on October 21, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    It is interesting to hear what successful writers think about failure, or the inability to write. When does one decide “I am successful”? when so many authors seem to live paycheck to paycheck. Who would think the Brown guy would have that best seller for a couple of years (Da Vinci Code)–I’m sure he didnt! So is there a magic income number? or is it sustained income? And do you ever run out of ideas? Thanks!

  5. Katy on October 22, 2005 at 4:01 am

    Well, by my eyes you are very successful. As long as the bloody publishers don’t decide to drop you, I shall continue to buy your books. I am even contemplating buying all of the books that I now own in paperback in hardback when I have a job and can afford to.
    A question about a book. I am reading through the Mary Russells again, and I was wondering if you will be writing the story mentioned in The Moor (I believe) as being the other case Mary worked on after marrying, besides A Letter of Mary.

  6. Anonymous on October 23, 2005 at 12:41 am

    Oh Laurie, that is the most pithy description of keeping on keeping on in the face of everyday uncetainty I have ever read.

    I laughed aloud, “…pull down your goggles and mail it to New York.”

    Your books drive me wild, but the words you share here are true ‘real life’ how to’s.

    Me, I’m just worrying about getting to Cozumel, Mexico next month.


  7. m on October 23, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Laurie this post inspired me to not wait for the library but buy Locked Rooms with a book token I’ve got. One sale up!

  8. rick on October 23, 2005 at 10:05 pm

    Twenty rejections and feeling bad! That’s peanuts. I have 169 so far for my first novel. There’s 2700 or so agents out there, so I’ve been rejected by only 6.26% of them, meaning I still have a 93.74% chance at success. Yippee!

    Now where did I leave my protagonist?

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