Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So How Do You Know When You Suck (Or Just Haven't Made It)

I was reading a recent issue of EW (aka: my bible) on vacation, and saw this lovely interview with Matthew Weiner, who is the creator of the incredible show, Mad Men. I'm transcribing it below because I thought it opened up a really valuable discussion to have here at AA.

Here's what he said.

1) He realized he wasn't smart - yet. "I started looking at people whose careers I wanted - David Chase, Woody Allen - and saw that I was not on that path.)

2) He said no. "I turned down a contract at Becker, even though I had no other job. It proved that I was uncompromising. Or crazy."

3) He made stuff. "I wrote the Mad Men script to show what I could do."

4) He never gave up. "It takes hundreds of no's to get a yes. How many networks are there? That's how many no's I got."

5) He played nice with everyone. "My Mad Men script was given to AMC by my manager's former assistant. Taking your aggression out on anyone will always come back to bite you. Sometimes in the parking lot after the meeting."

So why did I take the time to post this interview? I thought that Weiner shares some pretty valuable tips on having the guts and survival instinct to hang in there for many years of moderate, though not showstopping success. But I also think his fourth point raises an interesting question that we don't often discuss here at AA, because I'm all about the positivity. But that question, and I hate to say it, but it's an important one, is: how do I know if these hundreds of rejections are simply part of the process or are a larger sign that I might not have what it takes?

Here's the truth: if you speak with agents and editors (and I have), all of them, when they're being honest, will tell you that a good many aspiring writers have no business hoping to move from aspiring to published. Obviously, writing is a subjective thing, and what is good to one person will certainly suck for another (just read any author's reviews and you'll see a wide range), but on the whole (and yes, there are exceptions, where universally, everyone says, how the hell did that get published), most published writers have a certain something that appeals. I don't know what it is. An innate knack? An innate voice? A very well-learned skill? It's really difficult to say, especially to say without coming off like a pompous ass, but again, the hard truth of this business, much like acting or any other artistic profession, is that not everyone is created equal. This is not a Montessori-like business where everyone is given and deserves a shot. (Says the mom who sends her kids to Montessori, so I'm certainly not knocking that educational method!)

How do you know if you have what it takes? That's where it gets tricky. Because I, for one, don't know the answer. Rejection, as noted above by Weiner, is so much a part of our business that it's difficult when to take something personally. I, of course, always tell you guys NOT to take stuff personally because, after all, this is a business. But never, ever, ever taking something to heart might mean that you're ignoring warning signs that, well, maybe this isn't the industry for you. I don't know. I know authors who have gotten 100s of rejections and finally landed an agent. I know authors who have gotten one yes at a publishing house after every other place rejected him/her. But I also know plenty of people who have never gotten that yes. Does it mean that they won't ever? No, of course not. But when (and why and how) do you draw the line? Because, let's be honest at the most pure level, some people are better simply writers than others. (Again, this feels very weird to say without coming off like an ass - and please know that I'm certainly not elevating myself here! I'm just opening up this discussion). How do you know if you're one of them? Again, tough call. I think being objective about your own work, as I've discussed in the past, is incredibly difficult, and sometimes, finding anyone who will be objective about your work and tell you the truth is incredibly difficult. Not to mention that again, many things are subjective, so one person's trash is another's treasure.

I don't really have any sagacious answers here. But I do think it's worth talking about. Certainly some people write for the pure pleasure of it, but others will chase the dream of being published for their entire lives, and if you do chase that dream...would you want to know if you just weren't going to cut it? Or alternatively, how DO YOU know that you weren't going to cut it? (I'm not saying that one poor manuscript won't give way to a better one - it happened in my case and has happened with countless writers I know. But yes, there are aspiring writers out there who are never going to leap the hurdle.) So how do you know?


suzanneelizabeths.com said...

Allison, as you know I've struggled with rejection in the writing process for ages and am in fact going through that process right now as I query agents with my first novel as I work on my second.

At one point in the past, it got so bad that I quit writing for four years. On a whim (and a challenge from my brother) I started blogging and then went back to my novels. I have not yet had that breakthrough and maybe I won't be one of the lucky ones, but for the moment I still love writing, so I keep going.

Last year, I read Debbie Macomber's book: Knit Together in which she describes how she wrote nine novels before she was eventually published...and now has sold untold millions of books.

Which is not to say that we will all be as lucky if we are equally persistent....but if she had quit after novel # 8, she would have nothing and we would not have had the pleasure of her books.

Her writing improved over time,which helped her finally get published. I hope that my persistence will do the same for me. There was a time when I hoped to make a career of writing novels. That may or may not happen, I suppose with each year it becomes less likely. And yes, it is discouraging in the interim and sometimes I want to quit, but I also believe that as long the pleasure of writing is greater than the pain of rejection, the dream is better than quitting.

larramiefg said...

Knowing whether or not you'll succeed in writing is like knowing anything else in life, your heart tells you...if you'll listen. After all, our desires are not always our purpose.

Aunt J-ha said...

I don't aspire to be a published writer, so maybe I'm not qualified to comment...But I would have to say, everyone sucks sometimes. So what if you suck? If you are on the path you need to be on, eventually you'll write the right piece at the right time and it will happen. Be honest with yourself and aspire to write your own truth. I think if you know you are writing your own truth it takes away some of the sting of rejection. At least thats the way it is for me.

Maya / מיה said...

I'm not a published novelist yet either, but I'm always surprised at comments that I read about rejection from fellow aspiring writers-- not at the number of rejections they get, but at their reactions. It seems people too often act out of complacency rather than a desire to improve-- i.e., they admit that they made an awkward POV choice but don't want to go back and revise, so they're just sticking with it and sending out what they have. They doggedly believe that success is about enduring rejection rather than growing from it. So I think one necessary component is that self-analysis that Matthew Weiner describes-- that drive to GET better, not just live through rejection.

But hey, I know I'm a good writer because my sister LOVED my WIP. ;)


Brenda Janowitz said...

Hey Allison-- what a brave blog post! Vacation gave you moxy!!!

I teach writing, and I've found that it's sooo hard to know who will succeed and who will not. True, some people are better writers than others, but the truth is, sometimes an idea or a particular story just taps into something that you simply cannot explain. Think about The Da Vinci Code-- it's often criticized as being poorly written, but people LOVED that book! And why not? It was pure, unapologetic fun!

I say never give up. I always tell students that completing a novel is a major life accomplishment. You've set a massive goal for yourself and completed it. Even if your first novel isn't ultimately published, you've done something of which you should be proud.

Anonymous said...

I realized that I was going to drive myself crazy even trying to make that distinction.

I don't ride my bicycle to win the Tour de France, I ride my bicycle to pick up some groceries at the store. If I'm slow and clumsy, oh well; I still get my groceries home. I write novels to develop my craft, to amuse myself, and to explore my own experiences. And I can get that whether or not what I'm writing is good or even publishable. So I just simply wrote, and submitted, and decided to let the chips fall where they may.

Alison Ashley Formento said...

This post is exactly what I needed today as I rethink my strategy (query letter) before I sub any more agents on my novel. This is my second go. I think I knew the minute I finished my first novel that it would be a tough sell to agents. I have 100% faith in this new story in the current market. I can pitch magazine pieces successfully without fear, but relying on a query letter to get me in the (agents) door for my fiction work, has me unbelievably anxious. So—to get published, which I intend to do—I need that all-important agent supporting me. It's disheartening and frustrating to write a 300 page novel that you believe in, only to be stymied by a one page letter. Right now, for me, that's the hurdle I have to leap.

Anonymous said...

Other people seem to recognize my ability. They comment - positively - and this pushes me on. It's minor success so far, but no one has ever told me to quit or get a day job. Just to work and polish and try again.

Validation comes from outside sources when there is something there in your writing. I think those who don't have "it" - whatever that is - are politely patted on the head. I see this happen in writing groups. Good writers get feedback - not all good - not so good writers are smiled at and told "nice job".

colbymarshall said...

I think because writing is such an accesssible thing and so many people can just sit down at the computer and pound pieces gives the illusion that if you just keep trying, you're bound to make it. I don't, however, believe this to be true. I think being a published author is just like any other profession that takes a special talent. It's like saying just because you want to play football, if you practice enough and go to enough tryouts, you'll make the NFL. It's just not true. That said, I guess I'm trying to make the NFL, if you know what I mean, so, I'm not for giving up, either :-)

Gay said...

I'll toot the horn of the Maui Writers' Retreat, which is without doubt the most valuable week I've ever spent on my career.

The authors there (all bestsellers) gave us the same message:

You continue writing in the face of "no" for the same two reasons:
1) Somebody you trust (a professor, an agent, an editor) told you that you have the talent to make it, and you believe them. They may not have said that what they read was good enough, but they said YOU were good enough, and so you either revise or you move on to the next thing.

AND this is critical, too:

2) You will die if you don't write.

If both are true, then you don't quit. EVER. If the second is true, then you don't quit, EVER. If only the first is true, then you have to decide how much gumption and persistence you possess and whether you believe in yourself enough to keep going, and only you know whether or not that is the case.

Me? I think I'm about the most stubborn person alive this side of the Rockies, and stories start rattling around in my head and threatening to make it explode if I don't write. It's pretty clear to me where I stand in the decision-making process.


pamcl said...


Great post. I think it can be as simple as this. If the writing stops being fun, if you're not enjoying it and start dreading it, then you know it's time to stop.

If you enjoy the work and time you spend writing, then there's no reason to stop. A common theme I've heard from many highly prolific bestselling authors is that they just never wanted to stop and improved from book to book, so that by the time they hit 10 or 11 or 14 or whatever number they wrote before they sold, they not only had improved, but had also developed a great process that worked for them.

Interestingly, most of these people seemed to focus more on writing their stories than on getting published.

Anne Wolfe Postic said...

Great post - loved the interview.

I just found your blog and, as a new freelancer, really appreciate the insight. Thanks.

Barrie said...

I enjoyed this post and all the comments as well. I think if you've gotten some decent (whatever that means!) positive feedback amidst a bunch of rejections and you want to keep going, then you just keep on plugging away.

Rebecca Daneault said...

It's always interesting to see how others reach their own epiphanies. And it can be downright painful to examine your own shortcomings, but it's truly the only way to get better.

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Before I started submitting queries, I told my mom I would send out 100. When I finally got my agent, I was at probably 125 or 130. My mother said to me, "I thought you were going to stop querying at 100." I said to her, "If I did, I wouldn't have an agent, would I?"

Sadly, my book was wrong time/crowded shelves/mommy lit, but getting my agent gave me the confidence I needed and so I continue on. And she has the confidence in me to stand by me.

I love what was said in the comments about wanting to ride a bike but not wanting to be in the Tour de France, and about wanting to write or die.

I think it would be horrible to tell someone to quit writing because their writing sucks. To us writers, it's breathing. Pure and simple. We all know that.

And who cares if they chase the dream and don't get it. At least they were going toward something. One of my favorite quotes:

If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right. - Henry Ford.

I wish we could all be supportive to all writers, regardless of their level of talent! And I truly believe that people get better at writing if they continue writing. I don't think writing is an 'industry' that people can just quit and choose to do something else. If they're not great at it, it's probably more of a hobby, don't you think? Done for the pure enjoyment of it. And what's wrong with that?

Good discussion though. Brings a lot up to think about. (oops, I'm ending a sentence with a preposition. I must be a bad writer! LOL!!!)

Daisy Whitney said...

I do think talent does and should win at the end of the day in any profession, creative or otherwise. The key to being happy is having self-awareness about your own talents and the self-awareness to know if the NOs are getting you closer to that YES or are a truthful assessment of your ability. Then make your own choice about going forward or not!

I also think about what Randy Pausch said: Brick walls are there for a reason. To let us prove how badly we want something.

Christina Katz said...

Hey everybody,

I wasn't allowed to come over here and play b/c I was busy reading Allison's book--and what a fine read it was. :)

So now, I come over here and Allison, you've dropped this big huge post on us! My oh my.

My response is that success, like so many things, is completely relative. I'm reading over the responses at my Writer Mama Riffs blog, which are part of the December Sell-a-bration, and every single post, just about, highlights different, very specific to that individual's sense of accomplishments from the past year. It's as if there are no limits to the things you can feel good about. I love that!

In looking back over my writing career, it's moved forward in strides, sometimes small and stumbling and other times what felt like giant leaps forward.

At the end of the day, to focus overly on what agents and editors say about writers and our work and whether or not we have "talent" seems a bit...masochistic, don't you think?

I mean don't get me wrong, I just wrote an entire book about positioning your writing career to make a positive impression on agents and editors. Self-promotion is an important aspect of any kind of success in any field, so we could be talking about any kind of talent.

But if I could climb up on a small soapbox here, I'd say what we are looking for, as writers, is less about constant acceptance letters or agent/editor approval and more about intuitive, feels right, and we know we're getting there progress.

Because that's what I see successful writers doing. Stacking small successes on top of other small successes, until, from the middle distance, it starts looking like big success.

And if I might go out on a limb, after climbing down from my soapbox, I'd further say that "talent" has so very little to do with success as to be not worth dwelling on.

At least not with the totally legitimate success that I've seen.

Teamwork also has so much to do with what is often perceived as one individual's success.

At the end of the day, for me, it's persistence that triumphs over talent. Too many genuinely talented people will never find the persistence. And too many less talented people will confuse ego for genuine talent.

And amidst all of that commotion is someone will just slowly and steadily stay with it until they succeed.

And that's the writer I'm always rooting for. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a really interesting book right now, called Outliers, by the same guy who wrote Blink and The Tipping Point.

An early chapter discusses the factor of time as it relates to talent and ultimately success.

They studied groups of violinists who were all accepted to a prestigious school, so it was understood that they all came in with some basic talent. The top third, the ones who became superstars all had one thing in common....they put in many more practice hours over the years than their counterparts. The bottom third, the ones who became music teachers practiced the least. There were no exceptions...

The chapter is titled 10,000 hours, which is the typical time period that puts someone at an expert level.

Bill Gates, Stephen King, and many others all put in the hours, continually improving, learning and then breaking out.

So many writers don't even get published until they've written many books, spent many hours. If the passion and persistance is there, eventually success is likely to follow.

Amie Stuart said...

I have to second the recommendation for Outliers! It's an awesome book!

That said I have two of the most talented CP's in the world-otherwise they would not be my Cp's. One fired her agent a year ago (after two years) and has nearly quit writing. The other has been trying for like 20 years. Even being published, I don't understand how some writers (talented or not!) manage to break out of the pack and some (talented) don't/can't.