After a class on book proposals I taught recently at The Writing Salon, I solicited feedback from the students. One accomplished author of many books, hard at work on a memoir, took me to task for my negativity.
“My major problem was having to deal with the relentless discouragement,” she wrote. “I realize that you wanted us to have a realistic view of the market. But it’s difficult for me to write if I become too down about the prospects of publication. You mentioned that 97% of manuscripts are rejected. That someone who spent two years writing a perfect proposal was still turned down, etc.”
Yep. It’s true. And it not only came from me, but from Ted Weinstein, the literary agent who came one night to hear the students’ pitches. He began his talk by saying that he usually dissuades people from writing a book, because it’s too hard.
But here’s the thing. You’re going to hear that it’s hard to publish a book these days, that your platform isn’t big enough, that your proposal needs more work. It sounds scarey. That’s okay. The bottom line is that you believe your project is worthwhile, that you have something to say that has to come out.
Otherwise, you might falter, and I think that’s what’s happening to this student. It happened to me, too. Last year I spent 6 months working on a book proposal for a biography, with two sample chapters. I showed it my agent, who said it was not good enough to interest a publisher. Two days later, I started this blog and put the project away. Later I showed the proposal to Ted, who also wasn’t positive about it. Still, the story nags at me, waiting to come out. I daydream about how to revise it. The next version will be the third. Writing still scares the crap out of me, when it’s something I care about. But that’s often the way it is.
At the end of an excellent novel I finished recently, Let the Great World Spin, author Colum McCann talks about this fear in an interview. “Vonnegut said that we have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down,” he explained. “I think that’s what happened with this book. I saw a big cliff and I took off.”
And earlier, he said this, “…stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself. At the heart of all this is the possibility, or desire, to create a piece of art that talks to the human instinct for recovery and joy.”
That’s from an accomplished author who felt the fear and wrote anyway, winning a National Book Award. His message is to keep going. I’m going to take him up on it.