Friday, August 16, 2013

When do you give up?

I come into contact with young aspiring writers all the time. One of the things they always want to know--often before they are even done writing their first book--is how they take the next step. "How do you get published? What do you do? Is there someplace I send it? What is this stuff about querying agents?"

And the real answer for every one of these kids, so far, has been "You're not ready to do that yet."

No, it's not based on some silly belief that young people can't be writing publishable work. I believe some of them are. But none of the teen writers who have specifically asked me that question and then shown me their work were ready for querying. They weren't ready for publishing. They needed more editing, more revising, and ultimately, more practice.

Some of these kids read and write enough to become competent, then impressive, then maybe publishable. At that point my advice changes a little, pointing them to resources for peer editing and query tips. I don't give that advice to people who aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll tell them straight up that they aren't ready to query. Sometimes I'll give them a few pointers and knowingly let them do their thing, because at that stage sometimes they're just not going to listen--they think you're being a naysayer just because of their age, and they wholeheartedly believe they're the exception. That doesn't really work when I have no "rules" that you have to break. I have no preconceived notions about young writers. If your writing is immature and underdeveloped, I will give the kind of advice I give to anyone whose writing is immature and underdeveloped. It just so happens that most immature, underdeveloped writing comes from immature, underdeveloped people, and the good news is that they get better.

So what do you do if you meet an adult whose writing just isn't there?

That's the main purpose of this blog entry. I want to discuss my position on what the heck you say to adults who just plain won't ever get there.

Picture this. You're working with an adult writer whose writing is terrible. Or maybe it's just mediocre. In some way, it's 100% clear to you that this person doesn't have it and probably will never have it. And they want to publish. They want to know why they keep getting rejections. They want your help.

So do you tell them? Do you tell them "This just isn't your thing, man. You need to let it go"?

I say no.

I wouldn't ever tell a hopeless writer that they'll never amount to anything.

Why not? Well, for three reasons.
  1. It's pretty damn mean.
  2. They will perceive YOU as an unsupportive jackass rather than perceiving THEIR WRITING as the problem.
  3. It won't work. If they love writing, they won't quit, even if they're horrible at it.
Now I don't mind being honest. I will out-and-out tell an author who asked for it whether I think they're there yet. I'll tell them what's wrong with their word choices. I'll tell them how cardboard their characters are. I'll point out the clich├ęs in their plots and the snags in their pacing. I'll tell them what they've done wrong and I'll show them how to be better.

But I won't tell them to quit. Even though honestly the majority of people I've given editing advice to won't ever succeed in the mainstream publishing world. (And of course I should note that it's not like I'm one of the gatekeepers in said mainstream publishing world. I'm not an acquisitions editor or a representative for a publisher. But as a person who's been editing fiction and nonfiction for over a decade, I can certainly tell you what isn't there yet, even if I might be wrong about what's good enough.)

I've seen a couple of people over on QueryTracker who have publicly displayed data showing that they've sent close to 300 queries. They're surviving on never give up. I've seen query letters written by adults that I can't believe were written by adults. They're never going to get any requests, but they think the name of the game is determination. I've seen manuscripts written by mature, driven people who usually do not have communication problems, and yet they fall apart completely when they try to write a novel--to the point where I couldn't even begin to help them fix it. And when I tell them how far they have to go, they put on their "whatever it takes!" face. Because we've all been told this is a rough business and that even the best among us have to deal with rejection. We wear the rejection slips like battle scars, imagining that one day we'll be able to show them off and laugh about how hard-won our success was, reminiscing about those days when everyone told us we'd never make it.

But some of us never will.

And unless you're an agent or a publisher, I wouldn't bother saying "no" to those folks. They will see the writing on the wall once they cross their personal threshold of how much rejection they can endure. Or maybe they don't have a threshold of that sort and they'll just keep going. You don't have to discourage them, and you shouldn't--not just to spare their feelings, but because it's not worth doing. If the publishing industry can't crush it out of them, it doesn't belong being crushed out. It's something they love and something they want, and telling them they're wasting their time would be a waste of YOUR time (not to mention a bad move if you want to continue on friendly terms with that person).

And even though it's probably unlikely if you've got an adult with no self-awareness of their work's low quality . . . you never know when they might surprise you.

"Read more, and keep writing" is the advice I give to developing writers. Writers of all ages have breakthroughs, and while it's rare for a mature writer to transform from a hopeless writer into a publishable one, it isn't impossible.

When you're chasing a dream with odds like these, "It's not impossible" sometimes starts to sound pretty good.


  1. OMG. I'm scared to ever send you my work. Even if you won't come out and say I should quit. :)

    Really though, this is good advice. I never imagined how big the learning curve was on writing novels (well). With my first I thought I was there, but I wasn't.

    With my second, with my newfound knowledge, I feel like I'm more there, but the voice thing is what haunts me. If a reason is given for a rejection, that's been it most of the times.

    But if novel #2 goes nowhere, I'll keep going cause I'm still learning stuff and hopefully one day I'll be published. Luckily for me, my ideas are plentiful and I've got other work waiting to be revised.

    1. I'm actually pretty nice to people when I'm telling them what's wrong with their work, and what I've noticed about people who are cut out to be writers and people who are not cut out to be writers is that people who really are going to be ready someday are willing to listen to any and all criticism, and they're going to employ good judgment in deciding what to listen to and what to disregard. They might be hurt by something that is said about their writing--after all, it's THEM, it's their baby!--but they're going to avoid taking the hurt so personally that they assume there was nothing but mean-spirited bashing behind it. They're going to learn from it. And they're going to get better.

      Mostly this article is about the people who send me stuff that's hopeless. I won't be the one to try to take their hope away if they're in that category. And it's definitely practice--and more reading!--that helps you get there. I don't believe I'm an expert or anything, but when I see something that makes it clear from the first sentence that the person isn't ready for publishing (or, like, Honors English), I can tell. It's when I start beating up a manuscript and being very critical that you know I think you're almost there.

      The book I got signed with was my eighth novel. :o