Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.
~J. K. Rowling
How many writers think of J.K. Rowling as a failure? (crickets) Yep, that’s what I thought. Because, of course, we know what J.K. Rowling didn’t when she started writing her first novel–as a single mother living on welfare, scratching her drafts in a cafe when she had time– and feeling every part a failure. But we have the wisdom of hindsight. We know how her story ends … at least now.
Can we imagine a children’s book world without J.K. Rowling? Or Kate diCamillo–whose books were rejected 473 times before publication. 473 times!
The road to success
Rejection. It’s that dreaded part of the process that all writers must endure if they hope to win the ultimate prize: a publishing contract.
And this is where some of you may be ticking off your fingers the success stories you heard about writers who got their agent at first submission (heck, they got their agent before they even finished the novel!). You may be remembering the odd author who was handed a contract at their first reading. But, is that really true? Did they NEVER have an agent or editor reject their work before they landed their first deal? Not likely.
The road to success is built on failure and rejections–lots of them. It’s a necessary reality that helps build essential thick skin needed to thrive in the publishing industry. Without it, the ability to step back and listen, objectively, to what smart, good-intentioned feedback is trying to tell you. To see what revisions are needed if your manuscript is going to come close to the finished piece you held so firmly in your creative head–because, of course, we are often our own worst critics.
It’s one of the hardest aspects of being a writer. If you were a painter, you’d hang your work on the wall, put a price tag on it, and no one would ask, “Who’s your publisher?” Or even, “Who’s your agent?”
While it might not seem fair, writing is the one creative art that demands validation for success. That validation comes in many forms. There’s private validation–butt-in-chair, key-tapping, word-goal-met sorts. And there’s the public validation. Maybe the safe kind: writing partners, critique groups, read-my-story-to-the-kids-and-they-loved-it kinds. And then there’s the gatekeepers. First, the agents and editors. Then the marketers, bookstores, librarians, parents, and readers.
You get the idea.
You’ve got to look failure in the face of the blank page, then you must face it in the queries and submissions courageously launched into the ether. And not one step of it is easy. If it were, everyone would have an agent and be publishing.
“Wait,” you might say. “I’ve done the hard work. I wrote a novel and revised based on solid feedback–my story is ready for the world!”
You craft your query letter, polish your bio, follow all the agents requirements for submission. Three weeks later, you receive a form rejection.
Why we fail
What went wrong? Well, that’s the rub. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
Manuscripts, like books, don’t always appeal to the agent reader in a way that makes it impossible to stop reading (and, yes, that’s the bar). It could be that the agent you queried has a client who writes stories too similar to yours or the agent may pass because they have a lot of picture book writers and need to add middle grade and YA voices to their list. And, of course, many of us are actively seeking underrepresented voices.
This is the essential question I’m always looking for in a query: Does this person need to be a writer or are they simply hoping to be a published author? Have they been doing the work? Writing, as Kathi Appelt would say, “like their fingers are on fire”? Does their bio highlight membership in SCBWI, critique groups, conferences, mentorships? Does their query tell me they have other works to read for consideration? Are they willing to revise if asked?
The answer to these questions is crucial. What matters most to you? Because getting one book contract does not guarantee a second, even with an agent (although that’s always our goal!). If the writer isn’t hungry to craft words into story, doesn’t need to sit in the chair until the draft is finished, doesn’t wake up at night with revelations because they can’t stop thinking about their stories–doesn’t put their work out there for feedback and learn from failure–is the writer ready for the next step?
Having an agent doesn’t mean failure ends. Editors reject submissions from agents (yes, we get rejected, too), acquisition teams reject an editor’s pitches for a potential project, gatekeepers don’t give positive reviews, the book doesn’t earn out, etc., etc.
Failure. In the book industry, it’s just part of the process. It’s what we do with failure, what we learn from it, that matters.
Leaning into failure
Still reading? Ready to lean into failure? Below are some ways to get started.
- Join a critique group. One that gives you high fives for awesome scenes but also isn’t afraid to ask tough questions about story elements that don’t hit the mark.
- Join SCBWI. The wealth of information, industry professional access through conferences, webinars, and a way to build a network of kidlit professionals is invaluable.
- Take classes. The Writing Barn, Highlights, your local indie bookstore are all great places to start for onsite and online options with leading professionals and great kidlit folks to continue building community.
- Build a kidlit community. I’ve already mentioned it twice above, so this is a biggy. We’re a tight-knit and supportive bunch. Building your community through classes, conferences, social media groups, affinity groups, and more is a great way to stay connected and understand the industry.
- Participate in writing challenges. 12×12 Challenge, Storystorm, NaNoWriMo, etc. Get the words flowing, meet kidlit folks, get feedback.
- Submit your work. It may seem scary at first, but send your writing into the world. Submit pages at conferences, try out one of the Twitter #pit days, send to agents and editors open to queries.
- Keep writing. While your work is in the world, have another project on the go.
And when the rejections come in–and they will–gird yourself with a treat, take a deep breath, and lean into the feedback the rejections provide.
- Are they all short form letters? If so, your work is missing the mark. Take time to look at the piece objectively to gain insight.
- You get a line or two of personal feedback from an agent. This is gold. Do not dismiss.
- Eventually, you start to get full requests. Maybe even several for one project. The agents may eventually pass but they’ve spent time with your writing and will often provide feedback about what didn’t work for them to take on representation.
- Are there patterns in the feedback? Perhaps she didn’t connect with the main character, didn’t find the inciting incident clear enough, perhaps the piece lacked sensory detail or setting. Or maybe there just isn’t a plot to hold on to.The agent may ask to see a different piece. If they loved the writing but the manuscript didn’t connect–or they want to be sure they’re taking on a writer who will continue to produce–they may ask what other manuscripts you have tucked away. This is where those years of writing in the trenches accumulating polished pieces pays off!
A persistent writer becomes a published author. I believe that.
Mind you, it may take months to get an agent’s attention. More likely, it will take years–plural. Maybe three. Maybe eight. Maybe it will be your 4th novel that hits the mark (hello, Jerry Spinelli) or your 8th (hello, A.S. King). But the ALA stickers adorning their covers tell their own stories.
Want to be a success? Lean into failure and you’ll be amongst the best.