When I left my corporate job, seven years ago now, my goal was to become a published author within five years. That was the wrong goal! If you focus only on publication, you are setting yourself up for tremendous disappointment. I learned that very quickly when my first submissions were rejected by agents and editors. Oh, I'd worked hard on those stories - they'd been critiqued and work-shopped and revised and refined, but they weren't ready. I wasn't ready. I'd taken writing classes, attended writing retreats and conferences, but I hadn't put in the hours of practice I needed. Several speakers at the LA conference emphasized the traits of practice, patience, and persistence and so I think they're worth revisiting here.
Practice. Malcom Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at something. While there's debate over the actual length of time (one person may take 3,000 hours to become a chess grand master, another may take 23,000 hours), there's no debate that practice is essential. Sarah Davies (on the agents' panel in LA) told the audience that she wants to represent writers who push themselves, who work hard to master their craft, who experiment and "have a go at the big idea." The more you experiment, the more likely you are to find a fresh idea. The more you write, the better you will become at writing. The more you write, the easier it will be for you to discard what you've written and begin again because you will learn that although you struggled mightily to set those words on the page, you have more bursting to be released. So practice, practice, practice.
Persistence. I love writing, live for writing, can't imagine myself not writing. I pour my heart and soul into my stories and then I send them out into the world. And back they come accompanied by the briefest of rejection letters usually beginning, "While there is much to recommend this story ... " If you're going to be an author, you must clad yourself in armor to deflect the blows to your psyche and pride. Wallow in misery when you must, seek sympathy and understanding from your fellow writers (who know only too well what you're going through), and then begin again. The only certainty in this profession is that you will experience rejection. But when your work is ready to submit, persistence becomes essential. Agents and editors receive countless submissions. Finding the editor who loves your story and whose publishing house has room for it on their list will take persistence. If you don't keep trying, your story won't find a home.
Patience. Editors on the panel in LA were insistent on one thing: learn your craft. Do not send out work that's not ready. Lucia Monfried (Sr. editor at Dial Books for Young Readers) said it this way, “There’s no speeding up how to get better as a writer. It takes time.” Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) told us, "take your time to make it great." And when you have taken your time and you do have that great work, you'll need the patience of a saint. You will polish your query letter, attach your story, and hit "Send" and then you will anxiously check your emails every day for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Because the wheels of the publishing industry turn slowly and you cannot speed them along. Disheartening though it may be, editors and agents are busy and receive many, many submissions. Practice and persistence I can deal with - but patience is another matter for me. The only way I can deal with the wait and the disappointments is to work on the next story.
So put in your hours, be persistent and patient, and may your story find a home.
More thoughts on the matter:
The Storyteller's Inkpot: Jane Resh Thomas on patience.
Kate Messner on picture book practice.
Melissa Stewart on persistence with her book No Monkeys No Chocolate.