I was looking back through some old articles I wrote for my RWA chapter in Hawaii and pulled this one out for you. This article appeared in the Words of Paradise, the newsletter of the Aloha Chapter, in March of 2005. I was not published then. I didn’t have an agent, or a submission with an editor at the time. I was simply struggling along and trying to complete a book, just like many of you are now.
I hope it inspires you. I haven’t changed a thing from the original.
THE COURAGE TO WRITE
Lynn Raye Harris
You’re a published author and you’ve been invited to speak to a group of aspiring writers. When asked for the single most important piece of advice you could give, what do you say to that group of hopeful faces? I recently attended a book signing/talk by an author (not a romance author) and I learned a couple of things I’d like to share with you.
First, we need to thank our lucky stars that RWA not only exists, but that we also somehow found our way to its doors and that we keep paying those dues every year, no matter how much we might grumble about the price. It’s worth every penny, and here’s why: RWA provides its members with the kind of information that helps each and every one of us to appear professional and dedicated when we contact, or even meet with, editors and agents. No one who takes the time to faithfully read the RWR each month or to solicit information from the RWA website, from her chapter, or from other RWA members can ever claim not to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the publishing industry.
Do you know, for instance, that you shouldn’t print your queries on hot pink paper or tell an editor that if she wants to know how your book ends, she’ll have to ask for the complete manuscript? Thank RWA for that, because it was crystal clear to me that some of the writers at this event didn’t know these most basic elements of professionalism. In fact, one writer wondered if a dramatic gesture, such as hand-delivering one’s manuscript to the editor of one’s choice, wouldn’t serve to get a foot in the door. Are you as agog at the mere idea as I am? Can you imagine flying to New York, sashaying up to an editor’s office and knocking on her door (assuming you get that far into the magic sanctum)? Worse, can you imagine tracking down her home address and popping up on her doorstep, perfumed pink manuscript in hand? I can certainly imagine the police officers that would escort me to a nice cell afterward. My luck, they’d look nothing like those hunky officers that so frequently populate the world of romance or the cute cops who stroll up and down Waikiki.
But this person really didn’t know that was a big NO-NO and she asked the question in response to the author’s accurate statement that the publishing world is tough to break into. How do you get your manuscript read when it’s only one of many currently making the editor’s office look like a cave littered with paper stalagmites? The short answer is to write the best darned book you can and to keep writing and keep submitting. It’s a glib answer, isn’t it? But it’s the truth, so why argue with it.
And always, always be professional. No fancy stationery or perfumed paper, no box of chocolates or letter from your grandma stating how much she loved your book. Crisp, clean white paper with readable typeface and proper formatting as well as a query letter you’ve sweated over, a synopsis you bled for, and a manuscript that starts with a bang and refuses to let go—that’s what you send an editor or agent, and only after following house or agency rules on what to submit and when. But you already know these things because you got the information in the same place I did.
So what would you tell that group of aspiring writers? Let me stress that this author was entertaining and witty and she answered questions graciously for two hours. She gave us some good information, and she even had fun anecdotes about editors and agents and fellow authors. But her answer to the question disappointed me. She said, “Don’t quit your day job.”
Now it’s not like I don’t understand how tough this business is or how hard it is to keep going when the rejections come pouring in, but it’s not the answer I would have given. I’ve heard this answer many times before, and though I don’t think we as writers should blissfully sail off onto our dream clouds with the idea that everything will work out in the end, I think there’s a better, more hopeful answer. The answer I would give has never been said better than when Winston Churchill said it in 1941: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
I could have chopped off the last two sentences of that quote, but why? They do apply, with a bit of judicious re-visualizing. The force we must never yield to is the force of our own doubts or the doubts of others. Keep writing. The overwhelming might of the enemy isn’t the power of the editor or agent to refuse our work, but rather it’s the pervasive sense of gloom pressing down on us from the world when we get yet another rejection or find out that someone who’s been writing less time than we have just signed a multi-book contract. Defeat those enemies, don’t give in to doubt, and keep writing. The next book might just be THE ONE. If you give up, you’ll never know.
Who am I to tell you this? No one, except that I speak from experience. I did give up. I had some unreal expectations about publishing, and when it didn’t happen for me as fast as I thought it should, I withdrew. I finally decided it would be easier to find something else to do. How many times do you get your teeth kicked in before you stop waiting for it? It was just too hard and it hurt too much and I quit, for several years it turned out.
But I’m back now and I’m pretty opinionated about some things. I firmly believe that you have to keep writing. Maybe you shouldn’t quit your day job, unless you’re retiring or you have a significant other willing to support you while you write, but I know for sure that you shouldn’t ever quit writing. Take a break if you need to. But don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged and give in to the doubts and fears that threaten to overwhelm you. I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it’s too important not to use it: “What is the difference between a published author and an unpublished writer? The published author didn’t quit.” Write that on a sticky note and tack it to your monitor.
As we listened to the author talk, we gazed at the thousands of books surrounding us in that mega-store. Some people were depressed. How would they ever get their books published when there were already so many out there? But I felt hopeful. If there’s room for that many authors on the shelves, there’s always room for one more. How do we get there? We keep writing. We never, never, never give in. We must have the courage to write and the strength to keep going in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s that simple and that hard. Or, as Winston would say, “Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.” I think the old boy knew what he was talking about, don’t you?
Originally published March 2005
Words of Paradise, Aloha Chapter RWA newsletter
As I look back on this article, I find it amazing that I said many of the things I’m still saying now. And I can report in all honesty that this attitude worked for me. When I wrote this, I didn’t know if it would work out or not. But I was determined not to give in. I’m still determined. 🙂