“One Page a Day . . .”

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

The following is an excerpt from my new book for serious writers, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly.

One of the most acclaimed novelists of the 20th century is Sir V.S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul. A Trinidad-born Briton of East Indian descent, V.S. Naipaul is the author of such acclaimed works as A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. He was knighted in 1990 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

In his early life, he received a great deal of encouragement and writing instruction from his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul. In fact, the father dreamed of becoming a novelist himself. But the senior Naipaul never completed the manuscript he worked on for many years, and he died never knowing his son would one day achieve the success that eluded him.

V.S. Naipaul succeeded because he was intensely committed to his craft. He would arise while it was still dark and write thousands of words before sun-up. Writing was his unbreakable daily habit.

Naipaul’s father, by contrast, lacked the all-important qualities that every successful writer must have: serious commitment, serious focus, and serious self-discipline. A chronic procrastinator, the father promised himself that “someday” he would get his novel written. He made many excuses for not writing.

Father and son often exchanged letters about the writing profession, and V.S. encouraged his father to become more disciplined as a writer. “Your experience is wide,” V.S. wrote, “and if you write merely one page a day, you will shortly find that you have a novel on your hands. … Stop making excuses. Once you start writing you will find ideas flooding upon you.”

But Seepersad Naipaul wouldn’t take his son’s advice. He’d write a few short stories, submit them to magazines — and sink into a deep depression when the stories came back rejected. Sometimes he became so discouraged that he’d stop writing for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, V.S. wrote dozens of short stories, submitted them again and again, received rejection after rejection — but refused to give up. As he explained in a letter to his sister, “This is my apprenticeship, and one expects rejections.”10

V.S. Naipaul became a Nobel laureate. His father died without achieving his dreams and fulfilling his potential. What separated these two writers? The son was serious and focused on his goals, the father was not. If you want to write brilliantly by writing in overdrive, then approach your craft with a serious concentration on your goals.

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“I Eat Rejections Like Popeye Eats Spinach”

William Saroyan in 1976

William Saroyan in 1976

Before author and playwright William Saroyan made his first sale, he wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Eventually, every one of his stories was rejected by all the magazines. He had collected nothing but rejection slips.

Undaunted, Saroyan simply turned right around and sent the same stories to the same publications—and the second time around, they started selling. Why? Because there was a high turnover rate among junior editors who sifted the slush piles at those magazines. The second time Saroyan sent out those stories, they went to a whole new round of editors. And you can do the same, because there is still a high turnover rate in the publishing business today.

Submit, submit, submit—and if your work is as good as you know it is, you will sell. As Lawrence Block put it in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, “Once you’ve got a story to the point where you think it’s worth submitting, you must submit it and submit it and submit it until someone somewhere breaks down and buys it.”

Mystery writer Donald Westlake (Bad News, Don’t Ask, and The Ax) used to paper the walls of his apartment with rejection slips. The day he sold his first story to a magazine, he celebrated by ripping those rejection slips off the wall—all 204 of them! At the time of his death in 2008, Westlake had more than a hundred published novels and nonfiction books to his credit.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.” And another science-fiction writer, Brian Stableford, said: “The vital point to remember is that the swine who just sent your pearl of a story back with nothing but a coffee-stain and a printed rejection slip can be wrong. You cannot take it for granted that he is wrong, but you have an all-important margin of hope that might be enough to keep you going.”

British mystery writer Alex Keegan is the author of a number of novels featuring private investigator Catherine “Caz” Flood. His titles include Cuckoo (Anthony Award nominee, best first novel, 1995), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill, and A Wild Justice. His short fiction has appeared in print and online magazines, and has been adapted by BBC Radio.

Alex Keegan has made a careful study of rejection, and has arrived at a startling statistical conclusion: If you make a persistent attack of the markets, you can develop a highly consistent and predictable ratio of sales versus rejections. “It’s a fact,” says Keegan, “that the more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but . . . you cannot fail if you work at your art, if you read, read, read, write, write, write, submit, submit, submit.”

A great antidote to the discouragement of rejection is the encouragement of a writer’s group. In January 1997, Keegan started a “Boot Camp” of committed but mostly unpublished fiction writers—eleven founding members, only three with any publishing credits. It was a hard-nosed, tough-minded, no-excuses writing group. The demands: each member must produce one short story every two weeks. The story must be submitted to the group for critique, then rewritten and submitted on the open market for publication. Though all eleven members professed a desire to write professionally, few had produced much output during the preceding twelve months, and even fewer had submitted any stories for publication.

But the rigorous demands of the Boot Camp changed that in a hurry. During the first year, 1997, the eleven Boot Campers racked up an astonishing number of sales—85 stories sold for publication either in print, online, or on the radio. One Boot Camper won the BBC World Service’s Short Story of the Year award. Keegan sold his fifth novel that year—and he sold forty short pieces. Each sale, regardless of medium, was designated a “hit.” The following year, 1998, Keegan and his fellow Boot Campers racked up over 200 hits. In 1999, over 350 hits.

It stands to reason that more submissions would result in more sales—but more submissions also means more rejections. “In 1997,” he said, “I had more rejections than in the previous forty-nine years of my life. But rejections are side effects, meaningless.” What mattered was that Keegan was writing an enormous volume of stories, and he was submitting them. If they came back, he instantly resubmitted them. Keegan made 168 submissions in 1998, which returned 107 rejections—but also returned 43 hits.

Keegan kept a spreadsheet of his submissions, and was able to calculate a “hit rate”—a ratio of sales per submissions. He found that he was consistently selling one time out of every 3.5 submissions (which was a bit higher than the “hit rate” of his fellow Boot Campers, one sale for every 4.5 submissions—and much better than his average at the beginning of his writing career, when he averaged a sale for every thirty submissions).

Many writers view rejections as bad news, or even as a personal insult. Not Alex Keegan. He views rejections as feedback. Sometimes an editor would append a hand-written note, giving Keegan insight into ways to make his work stronger and more salable the next time around. Most important of all, he knew he had a consistent batting average, and every rejection just brought him one step closer to his goal.

“I can count,” says Alex Keegan. “I know that three rejections mean a sale. I welcome rejections. . . . I eat rejections like Popeye eats spinach.”

The moral of the story: Never accept rejection as final. Keep working at your craft, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Persistence in the Face of Rejection

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘To the editor who can appreciate my work,’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Novelist and humorist Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees

_____________________________

I recently received a letter from a writer who is battling his way through rejection after rejection. He quoted the words of Thomas Edison, who said in 1877, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” My friend refuses to give up, and he believes he’s going to find the right publisher in the end.

I like this writer’s confidence and persistence in the face of rejection. I’ve been writing full-time since 1989, and I can tell you that you never get used to the rejection. All you can do is learn not to take it personally.

A lot of people give up after a few rejections and go the self-publishing route. It’s hard to blame them, and in some cases that’s undoubtedly the best course. But I still think that, in most cases, it’s worth it to make a good sustained effort at finding a traditional publisher.

Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Anyone who has received as many rejection slips as I have is not going to complain about signing autographs.”

At the height of his career, Ray Bradbury said, “I get rejection slips every week of my life. I’ve published thirty-five stories in Playboy magazine, but in recent years they’ve rejected eight short stories. And The New Yorker rejects every time I submit.”

J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected innumerable times before she finally sold it—for a paltry $4,000 advance. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 23 times before it sold. Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, 21 times. Frank Herbert’s Dune, 13 times. Mystery writer Donald Westlake collected more than 200 rejection slips before his first sale; he actually papered the walls of his apartment with rejection letters.

William Saroyan, at the start of his writing career, wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Ultimately, every one of his stories had been rejected by every one of those magazines—he collected nothing but rejection slips. So, after that first round, he simply sent the same stories to the same publications—and the second time around, they started selling. Why? Because there was a high turnover rate among the junior editors who sifted the slush piles at those magazines. The second time Saroyan sent out those stories, they went to a whole new round of editors—and he began selling his stories.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.”

I hope you find it reassuring to know that rejection is just a normal part of the writing trade, and that rejection is not a reflection on the quality of your work, anymore than it was a reflection on the quality of L’Engle’s, Bradbury’s, or Rowling’s work. While there’s no guarantee of success, it’s important to know that a key ingredient of success is perseverance.