Sticking it Out on the Rocky Road to Publication

​​​​​​​I’ve worked hard all my life and was taught that hard work and determination pays off. I put myself through law school, raised two amazing daughters as a single mother, and embarked on a writing career at mid-life, eventually being published by many prestigious magazines and newspapers. Yet that golden book deal has remained elusive. At times I’ve feared that perhaps I’ve finally hit my personal glass ceiling.

Your writing is quite beautiful and compelling. You’re a great writer. I applaud this ms. Samples of my rejections. Top agents have bemoaned the current memoir market they say is dominated by celebrities and the “sensational,” “shocking,” and those in the culture making the “very loudest noise.” Everyone’s dream agent said “it’s out there” and told me not to give up.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to.  

At times, I’m heartened by the tales of all those famous writers who received scores of rejections. Chicken Soup for the Soul  guru Jack Canfield who received 144, and Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and his 121. Author of Still Alice Lisa Genova got 100, and Beatrix Potter and Marcel Proust self-published!

Nonetheless some days rejection feels like just what it is – another notch in the minus column.

Still, each day I write. At night, I continue waking up to send myself an email. Somewhere in my subconscious I’ve finally worked out how to string those words together from the sentence I struggled with the day before. Writing is one of those ever so lonely professions so I decided to ask three authors I admire about their own rocky roads to publication.
In her best-selling memoir The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love, AP journalist Danielle Flood, recounts her difficult childhood with a troubled mother and unwavering search for her biological father. Heartbreaking and gorgeously written, the memoir was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. From pen to print, publication took 11 years.

Beverly: How did you stick it out?

Danielle: You have to do what you can to make it a nice experience for yourself or you won’t last if you’re suffering all the time. Especially at my age, in my 60’s, you have to make sure that you have a time and place to work without interruption on a regular basis. You have to do whatever it takes to keep yourself in shape, almost like an athlete, because I believe that the writing is affected if you are not getting exercise.

Beverly: Eleven years is a long time. Why didn’t you give up?

Danielle: I couldn’t; I had no choice but to write this memoir. You have something inside you that you want to give to the world and if you don’t, after all the sadness and joy, you feel that you would be worthless if you didn’t share of this well of feeling. Of course I wouldn’t be worthless. We all have the right to simply live life without using our lives for others; but it feels better that I did something with this experience of being fatherless and what it was like to look for him on the other side of the ocean.

Eleven seems like a magic number because that’s also how long it took journalist Jennifer Haupt to write and publish her debut novel In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills. Her visit to Rwanda where she interviewed genocide survivors led to the novel Oprah termed “page-turning” and The Seattle Times called an “eloquent effort to find resilience and connection in the face of grievous loss.”  

Beverly: You tortured yourself with self-doubt for years, but finally finished writing your novel. Then what happened?

Jennifer: My agent sent it off to 35 editors, confident at least one publishing house would make an offer. Two months later, she called to tell me that my novel had been rejected by all 35 with no offers of a reread. “Well,” she said, “I guess that’s the end of the road for this story.”

Beverly: How did that feel?

Jennifer: I spent a lot of time crying, grieving, during the weeks after I hit the end of that road. Honestly, I thought about burying the novel for good. But still, I was hooked. The 64,000 dollar question I faced was this: How could I keep the joy and avoid the gut-wrenching sorrow of rejection?

Beverly: I can’t believe you said that. JOY! That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. How to remain joyful!

Jennifer: The truth is, external markers of success do still matter. I’ll even admit to caring about making money. The difference is this: Even though I have been busy promoting the novel, I find time almost every morning to connect with the sheer joy of writing. This isolated artistic bliss, this writing life that I have so carefully constructed during the past eight years since those 35 rejections, has become my safety net. The internal definition of success—sitting down and writing every morning, even if I only create one sentence I love—helps to balance that Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars part of me that still can’t believe my good fortune.

As if I needed another pep talk after that amazing advice, I still wanted to check in with one final author, one of my first writing teachers from way back, whose advice has always been generous and spot on. Award-winning writing professor, journalist, and bestselling author Susan Shapiro just released her 12th book in 14 years. She wrote professionally for 23 years, however, before landing a book deal with Random House for her memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, that’s now been translated in multiple languages, followed by my personal favorite, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex.

Beverly: How did you finally land that first book deal?

Sue: Using a top ghost editor is what helped, along with coming up with a sexy title and premise that editors felt was universal.

Beverly: Should a writer never give up, no matter how long it takes?

Sue: Not at all. Sometimes you have to give up on the book you’re writing because it’s not working or not commercial or the wrong genre.

Beverly: If you’ve paid your dues as a writer, knocked on 100 doors already say, and are fresh out of ideas, what should you try next?

Sue: Hire a great ghost editor with a record in your genre to tell you the truth in a tough critique. Or suggest how to change the book to make it better, more timely or more commercial. I’ve changed a memoir to a comic novel, and a few books went from memoir to self-help which - for a non-dramatic, more common topic - can be easier to sell. My coauthored addiction book “Unhooked” became a NYT bestseller this way. Or buy my book BYLINE BIBLE and start over with a great short essay. 

My takeaways from these three wise women? Be brave, be flexible, endure, and remember it’s also about loving what you’ve been called to do while you wait.

Stay tuned for more.

In the meantime, feel free to share advice from your own writing trials and tribulations. As I’ve discovered along the way, we really are all in this together.

Tags: agents · book publication · Danielle Flood · Fear · first book · Jennifer Haupt · memoir · rejection · Susan Shapiro · the writing life · writing



1 response so far:

  • Eve – Aug 22, 2018 at 8:14 PM

    Simply based on the few articles I've read, written by you, you are headed for success.


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" Ostensibly about the break-up of her marriage and loss of her dream house, a four-story Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, Beverly Willett's absorbing memoir is really about finding a home in one's own skin. A delight."

Courtney Hargrave, Author of Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South, a major motion picture starring Forest Whitaker

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