Today’s guest post is by author Tony Vanderwarker (@VanderwarkerT).
I had 7 unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices when John Grisham—a friend and neighbor—took me under his wing and taught me his writing secrets.
When he offered to help, you could have scraped me off the ceiling. Expecting he was going to give me the magic formula to creating bestsellers, my imagination fired up visions of auctions with publishing houses vying for my book, six-figure advances, and movie deals. I was on cloud nine and ready to crack open the champagne.
But John believes in brutal honesty, and brutal he was. He put me through a year of writing outlines before I could write word one of the novel, having me scrap the whole thing several times and start again. Then he savaged my first draft—tore it to pieces, didn’t even read the whole thing. Mocked parts of it openly, too. Most writers go through some form of hell, but with John Grisham looking over my shoulder, I went through hell on steroids: his formidable success made it easier to hope that my own was in reach, but his brutal honesty knocked me to the ground and into a heap of self-doubt over and over again.
It was a roller coaster ride, but eventually I learned to recognize the dangerous traps my imagination was pushing me into. I think you’ll recognize them, too.
This one’s fun. It’s dreaming of the gleaming red Boxster you’re going to rush down to the dealer and buy when your six-figure advance comes in. Not only is it distracting, but since only a few percentage of books ever sell more than 5,000 copies, it’s guaranteed to build you up for a big crash when you realize your baby will not even make the top 50,000.
Keep the juices for the writing, not the pie-in-the-sky rewards, and you’ll be better off for it.
In other words, getting up from your keyboard, slamming your first draft down on the floor, and stalking out of your writing room, muttering, “That’s it, I’m giving up, it’s too damn hard.”
We’ve all been there. The slope seems too steep, the rocks keep rolling down at you, the wind’s whipping up, and you’ve had enough.
But you—and only you—can make this work. Sometimes all it takes is a little distance so you can pull yourself up and regain perspective. Then forge on, like Faulkner did, or Hemingway, or any writer worth his or her salt. Goes with the territory.
You get a rejection notice from an agent or publisher. The big N-O. But instead of letting it go, shrugging it off as no big deal, you lie awake at night, or stare out over your screen and wonder what, exactly, the phrase, “Sorry, Tony, but this didn’t work for me” meant. Was the opening all wrong? The main character not likeable enough? The story just not compelling? Is that why the agent or publisher hated it?
I’ve done it too many times, gone down the road of, “Well, they represent X or Y and their stuff is really charged, so maybe I need to electrify my prose, then they’ll like it more. Or maybe I should tweak this, or that, or this, or …”
STOP. You are reading too much into the rejection. Just let it go.
Once I got three rejection notices in one day. I felt like the boxer up against the ropes being pummeled to death by his opponent. The whole world was against me, I was never going to publish—as if these three agents had conspired to all mail on the same day to let me know I’m a hopeless case.
This is one of the easiest traps we can fall into because a writer’s life is full of rejections. It’s an axiom that not everyone is going to like everything you do. Grisham was rejected many times, so was King and Faulkner and Fitzgerald.
5. Saying no
I really mean saying no too soon. I’ve said it a million times to myself: “That’ll never work.” It’s a total cop out, a denial of your own talent and ability to come up with a workaround to whatever problem you’re facing. And it’s the easy way out.
You know what Nancy the Navigator in your car GPS does when you don’t follow her directions? She quickly recalculates and sends you on a new route to your destination.
Instead of saying no, start looking for a way around, a route over or under your problem. I had this idea about writing a book about the experience of being mentored by John Grisham while penning a novel. Told myself no at first, did the whole “that’ll never work” thing. But I took five runs at it and on the fifth I finally broke through. It never would have happened had I kept on saying no. (The book releases in January 2014 from Skyhorse.)
Don’t let your creative mind work overtime and spin these tails of impossible success, incompetence, woe, or failure. As Wordsworth said, “We half create the world we see.”
Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With a Bestseller (Skyhorse, January 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.