Are you brave enough to suck?
This year I was fortunate enough to sell my first young adult novel. This process is neither easy nor painless. I shed many tears, had many sleepless nights, and paced hallways trying to push through writer’s block. Six months in, I scrapped my entire first attempt and rewrote the whole manuscript keeping only the core idea.
“Close” rejections stung. “I was totally hooked, but it was too similar to other books on my list.” Or, “Really great writing, but I just didn’t connect with it enough.” But it only takes one editor to love your story, and I was fortunate to find her.
The experience taught me a ton about the publishing industry and the writing process. It’s been a humbling journey. I’d love to share with you some of the lessons I learned over the past two years, writing this debut novel. I’m going to start with the one I think was most impactful --
I simply could not write my best work until I was brave enough to suck. I had to understand that even though I’d spent 10 years working on my writing, even though I had an agent, even though I had two published picture books, and even though I had worked for Nickelodeon and a Disney company, I still had so much to learn.
Two years ago I joined a fabulous critique group with super-talented writers. I came in cocky, I’ll admit. But the talent in my group was exceptional and standards were high. The writers were funny and poetic. Their grammar was better than mine. Their pacing was better than mine. They studied and honed, and they had put in hours of time and effort that I simply had not.
I had a huge wake up call: they were better than me, and I had a lot to learn from each of them.
Now of course this is all relative. I HAVE been writing for a long time. I’m not a novice. My work is certainly good enough to have an agent, but it isn’t always good enough for a slam-dunk sell.
The members of my critique group were intense, intent on publishing in a way that was hungry and pragmatic. There was no room for “good enough.”
Everyone knew that some part of their submission was going to be lousy. It was going to need rewriting. Maybe a lot. It was not good enough for publication … yet. I went to every critique group knowing I was going to get a beating, and the wounds would sting. They pushed and asked tough questions.
Another member of our critique group, who joined at the same time as I did, dropped out after just a few meetings because we critiqued too harshly. We did not stroke her ego. She was positive that her manuscript was perfect just the way it was. It wasn’t. Some parts were great, some needed real work. She was unwilling to accept her sucky-ness while I decided to embrace mine.
Success in this field (in my opinion) means understanding that writing is a process, and none of us are “there” yet. Heck, we may never get “there.” The point is to keep trying to be better. To keep trying to be your personal best. To exceed your own expectations, but to know that if you ever believe you’ve gotten “there,” you’ve probably reached the wrong destination.
To be fair, some part of this crazy business really is luck. It’s finding that one editor who loves your story enough to publish it. You have no shot at being lucky, though, if you aren’t hard on yourself. My critique group was fierce. Fierce about not accepting sub-par work from ourselves or each other. Fierce about being the best we could be. Fiercely honest about understanding the industry: what would sell and what likely wouldn't.
I just started working on a new novel, and I’m already pacing the hallways because I know it’s not nearly good enough yet. I know huge chunks need rewriting. I have to find the bravery – the courage – to accept that it sucks, and the resolve to work my tail off to make it better.
Thanks to Shari! Her motivational words will follow me to my critique group tonight. Shari's YA debut novel, The Stellow Project, will be out in spring 2015 from Skyscape. Until then, you can get to know her better through Twitter @sharirbecker and Facebook.
Have a wonderful week!