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The hat of realism

I try to limit my posts about writing, since I have my doubts about their widespread appeal versus, say, amusing fictionalizations featuring my dog, or perhaps zombies and brownies recipes. (Which probably also have limited appeal, but whatevs.)

However, the issue of realistic expectations has been on my mind recently, and because I think my brain periodically needs to have its thoughts dumped out to make room for new ones (especially critical as I move into revision mode) I thought I’d go ahead and blog on it.

So: On various writing boards and forums, one inevitably comes across posts by writers despairing over ever having their work accepted. This usually seems to be in conjunction with finding an agent. And the standard reply to these ubiquitous gloomposts is something to the effect of, “Cheer up! It only takes one yes!”

Well, if we’re thinking long-term, as in truly developing a career as a writer, that aphorism is false. It takes several yeses. A veritable string of yeses. A short list of “yeses” required if one wants to develop a career as a traditionally published writer:

  • Yes from the agent (let’s assume for now that the agent is legitimate and competent)
  • Yes from the editor at the publishing house
  • Yes from the editorial board at the publishing house
  • Yeses from readers

And even then, there are no guarantees. Just because an agent loves a book doesn’t mean an editor will love it. Just because an editor loves it doesn’t mean the editorial board will approve it. Just because the editorial board approves it and has it published doesn’t mean readers will love it.

And even that assumes the process goes as it it should–for instance, that the editor doesn’t leave the publishing house and orphan the book; that the author and editor agree on changes to the book; that the publishing house itself is stable and doesn’t go under.

So every time I see “It only takes one yes!” I’m tempted to reply, “Um, no. It takes quite a lot.” But I don’t, because I’m a writer, and I get the Pit of Despair moments. I get that sometimes you need to hear “It only takes one yes,” because the only thing you can do in the moment is look at the next step and ignore how there’s still a whole mountain to climb.

I get that we writers are cobbled together from extreme hubris and paralyzing self-doubt. It’s an exhausting pendulum to ride–which is why I try to keep on my realism hat. It is the hat that reminds me that it is a bad idea to overanalyze statistics from The Submission Grinder (“Hmm most other people had their stories rejected at days 12-16 and I am on day 17 with no rejection OMG does that mean my story is going to be accepted?!?! MUST WATCH CONSTANTLY TO FEED THE FIRE OF HOPE! *clickrefreshclickrefreshclickrefresh*”). It is the hat that reminds me I shouldn’t expect to be more exceptional than the exceptions–that Stephen King had his railroad spike chocked full of rejections; that J.K. Rowling was on welfare and had Harry Potter rejected from 12 publishing houses before it was accepted for a small advance; that I am statistically unlikely to have a career approaching either one.

It is also the hat that reminds me that the one way to guarantee failure is not to write and not to submit my work.

So, does it take more than one yes? Of course. Does that mean we should stop trying? Never.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Annaka Kalton February 12, 2015, 6:05 am

    Nice post!
    I hadn’t really thought about the fallacy of “just one yes,” but you’re quite right. I suppose that it’s one of those “useful lies” that Steve Brust likes to talk about: it isn’t true, but it allows people to keep going.

    I think your realism hat is a sensible way of looking at things – as long as you can tilt it at an optimistic angle, so that you *do* keep going.

    I like to focus on all of the perfectly successful writers who had to write 7 or 8 books before getting published. Although that’s a lot of trunk novels, it makes me hopeful that if you stick with it long enough, and really work at it, it can happen.

    It’s just all too easy to give up after, say, the third or fourth trunk novel!