Editors Blog

Your Job Is To Write, Not Worry

Two summers ago, I landed a literary agent for my novel, The Great Lenore. A short time later, she submitted the manuscript to editors at HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press – each of whom she had a close working relationship with. She was excited when she sent the manuscript their way. She was excited as we awaited their responses.

Each editor came back to her within a week: “We love the premise of the story. We love the writing. But … we’re just not sure it has enough commercial appeal.”

(What writing credentials will impress an agent or editor?)


Guest column by J.M. Tohline, author of The Great Lenore, a
work of literary fiction, which you can find in those places where
you find books – you know, those bookstore thingies that
seem to be rapidly disappearing. You can hang out with
JM Tohline at JMTohline.com.


About six months after that, a series of incidents in my agent’s life/agency caused her to minimize her operation – and I was left in the cold as an agent orphan. While making my way through the whole “search for an agent” process again, I came in contact with Atticus Books – a tremendous small press from the D.C. area.

In time, Atticus Books requested the manuscript, and after reading it, they returned to me with this: We love the premise of the story. We love the writing. But…we’re concerned it might be a bit too commercial for a literary audience.

Too literary…

Not literary enough…

Atticus Books decided to take the risk and cross their fingers, hoping the book would appeal to both audiences (instead of missing right down the middle). The Great Lenore has been in stores for a few months now, and not by a long shot has every eventual review rolled in – but so far, those who love literature have found that they love the book. And those who prefer commercial fiction (or who do not read often at all) have found that they love the book.

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)

Am I laying some serious weight on my own horn here? Not at all (after all, there will certainly be readers who do not care for The Great Lenore, as every reader has unique tastes). I am simply wanting to paint a picture for each of you who labels yourself: Aspiring Author.

You will run up against many detractors. You will run up against many who sow seeds of doubt. These people are not being mean – they are simply doing their job. Publishers are not supposed to see everything about a story that “works”; they are supposed to see everything that might potentially make a story not work. Agents are supposed to do the same thing. But just because an agent or publisher tells you something won’t work does not mean they are right.

Look at all the tales of immensely famous and popular writers who were told their story would not work. Or, look at writers who have been pumped up by publishing houses and even by big-time reviewers, but who have failed to connect with any semblance of an audience.

Why? Because no one truly knows. Until your book is released at last, there is no telling how readers will react. And until that time, your job is to keep writing. Keep working hard. Keep having faith.

Your job is not to worry about what everyone says. Your job is not to change your style in order to please others. When potential negatives in your manuscript are pointed out by an agent or publisher, listen. But take it with a grain of salt.

Remember: No one truly knows! Your job is to write well. And as long as you keep doing your job, the rewards are sure to follow.

(How do you make money writing articles for magazines?)


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Check out Les Edgerton’s guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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61 thoughts on “Your Job Is To Write, Not Worry

  1. mlnuttgill

    I remember this book and waiting for it to come out, even posted it to Facebook. Something Tohline wrote then stuck with me, so I contacted him. I can tell you he means what he wrote at the beginning of his novel, he loves to hear from you, he responds. His writing voice is unforgettable. I’m so glad he was published. I love Lit-Comm ( my own description). It tells a great story without talking down to you. No formulas, just good writing. Let’s hope more will continue to be published.

  2. andrea

    This was inspiring. I am an undergraduate writer and I have my work criticized on the regular basis. The criticism is conflicting, as you mentioned on yours, and generally personal preference and I have come to disregard much of it because there are those couple of people who really understand my writing and my style. Its people like those and successful writers like you that reaffirm my confidence in my skill and that I am making the right career choice. Even if I didn’t receive any support, there’s nothing else I could do that would bring me as much peace and normalcy as writing.

  3. Texasdutchie

    I am thankful to not be at that stage yet. I am prepared however because I have heard this version from fellow writers before. As a writer, you can try to write and craft your work as best as you can but ultimately, it all depends on very subjectivce variables. Preconceived notions. Someone having a bad day. The story does not appeal on an emotional level no matter how well written. I will keep that in mind once it’s my turn to receive those rejection letters and/or comments. Like the rest of so many others, I’ll be sure to claim paying my dues while hoping someone will walk into the office with a spring in her or his step, waiting to read just my story! [s]

  4. ramblesphere

    Thanks for this pep-talk. I’ve printed out an excerpt to post right near my workspace, to silence that ridiculous voice in my head that tries to convince me it can read the minds of agents, publishers, and my future readership alike. This is a good reminder to just write the best, most authentic book I’m capable of.

  5. Lynn

    Thank god there are still people out there that are down to earth and just tell it like it is. I agree whole heartedly with the article and can relate. I hope your book does well. I studied the publishing side for a year just to understand the way they work. Now as I work on my novel I am more comfortable knowing how it may or may not turn out. Thank you for being honest.

  6. S. A. Tudhope

    J.M., thank you for sharing. I agree, a definite breath of fresh air. It’s always wonderful to know we aren’t alone. It’s so true that if we don’t go after what we want, we’ll never get it. Taking the first step is essential or we will always be in the same place. Keep writing!

    Chuck…always wonderful hearing you talk. Another gush of fresh air!!!

    I’m breathing good.

  7. elizabeth park

    I am intrigued by the combination of literary and commercial, Edith Wharton or Nora Roberts … as well as the premise of the novel, mostly — Wouldn’t we all like to know?…. Best Wishes, Elizabeth

  8. AHF Wolf

    Often critics tell me that the part of my novels that they like least are the ones which I know work best, just not for them.

    It is especially frustrating when people with no knowledge of the subject matter criticise a plot twist as unrealistic, even though they have never done any research on what you are writing about.

    Nobody else’s novel is going to be perfect for the reader, because there will always be things they would have liked to see that you did not do, things that you did do that jar with them, or even upset them tremendously even though they liked the overall product, and there will of course be those little things that when someone suggests them you think “Oh yes, I could have made that work – I will remember for next time”

    And why must the comment winner live in the US or Canada? The internet is a global family, and I’m sure there’s no law against giving a copy of the book away for free to anyone who lives in Europe?

  9. KLTville

    Recently, a friend asked me why I write. The same day I read your article. Both of you have caused me to look deeper into myself, and to remind myself of the magic of words; not only publication. I think those of us who write all suffer doubts, and need a period of self-examination. Thanks for the motivation. It was a timely gift!

  10. dbrodsky

    Thanks you for this post. I needed to hear, yet another, published author say this. All hope is not lost. I opened The Great Lenore on Amazon a few minutes ago and have to say your opening line is one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. I’m so happy for you. And if I “win” a copy of your book, I’ll buy an extra for a Christmas gift and spread the word. Going to find you on Good Reads and various other haunts now.

    Cheers and congratulations! Well done! : )
    Perhaps the race really isn’t for the swift.


  11. CrystalCherie

    I’m so thrilled that this showed up in my inbox this morning. It could not have come at a better time. I’ve been writing since I was thirteen years old. Now of course, I didn’t write anything publishable then. I stuck with my love of writing, however, and now I’m twenty and in college pursuing a degree in creative writing. I’ve wrote my heart out the past two years, and am currently working on a novel I want to pursue publication with. I’ve been researching late into the night, after homework, to figure out what to do and what not to do. It’s all a big tangle of time and letters. It’s nice to hear from an author who has, at one point in time, been in my shoes. It’s nice to know that somewhere in all the mess, the love of writing is still appreciated.

    Good luck to you! I look forward to reading your novel one day when I can get my hands on it!

  12. soulbird

    It’s a writer’s greatest fear – that our best work, written from the very depth of our soul, will be rejected. It’s safe from this rejection as long as we keep it hidden away in our little black books where only our eyes may read and dream of it actually being in print. To take publishers’ opinion of its success “with a grain of salt” is almost like asking one to pull down the moon; both are equally heavy on the heart.

  13. mister.write

    Sometimes I think publishing houses are more concerned with accepting something they deem “marketable” as opposed to good literature. Glad to hear things worked out for you. I would love to read your book!

  14. SCunninghamOrtiz


    Thank you for your beautiful and encouraging words to help calm all of those worries…and I sure do have them (first book, ten years and still at it, at the bottom of the learning curve about social media)! I also followed the link to JM Tohline’s blog and got lost in all the great things he had to say there.

  15. Beccajones

    So, this article gives us hope that if we write to the best of our ability and have a great book, then perhaps we will find that agent or publisher that will love our book, too. Good to keep in mind (but at the back of my mind) as I concentrate on my writing instead of worrying if someone will ever read it.

    Becky Fettig

  16. ragdolltb

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’m still working on the first draft of my first novel, and am already beating myself up over it. This article really helps a l lot with my mindset when looking to the future.

  17. Artemis1967

    J.M., thanks for your article. It certainly is timely. Though I have been playing at writing since I was 10, I’ve never had the courage to attempt submission of an actual manuscript. The fear of rejection is difficult to overcome, especially when I make good money at my day job. Writing, however, is my passion, and I have finally decided, in middle age no less, to charge ahead, full boar. Thank you, again, for the reassurance that it isn’t the opinions of one editor or one agent I need to be concerned with; it is my motivation, my ambition and my confidence in my own work product that will, eventually, bring my work to the attention of those who will appreciate it.

  18. virginiallorca

    A single good review from a single random reader with no agenda to promote makes it all worthwhile. Maybe someone who needs to put bread and butter on the table through their writing would look at it differently, but it was the best thing I have encountered in my life in quite a while.

  19. Tanya Hernandez-McInerney

    Thank you for sending out inspiring words to aspiring writers. I will continue to pursue my dream of being a writer, and not give up my dream of being a good runner as well. This article came at a great time for me, as I sit here icing my ankle from my first injury from a sport I truly love – running. Raced in the OBX half marathon this past weekend, and while I may be down for a little bit, I’m not out. I would love to read your book on my road to recovery.

  20. Rufina

    Thanks for the advice, Love the article. My computer is always on with Microsoft word minimized so if I get an idea I can put it in my acorns file. I took a creative writing class and our instructor told us to create an acorn file for our ideas and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m still an aspiring writer as I haven’t gotten anything published but when I see authors like you in writer’s digest it encourages me, thank you so much.

  21. Jennifer Jensen

    Great post! I run into the same problem with a cross-genre middle grade novel. Not straight historical because it’s time travel. But because that’s the only fantasy element, it’s not what fantasy publishers are looking for. So I just keep plugging away . . .

    On another note, you’ve got me itching to The Great Lenore. I don’t care for over-the-top literary reads, but I like a little more meat than straight commercial – it sounds like a perfect match! I’ll catch it in my next Amazon order, unless I’m lucky enough to win a copy. :)

    Thanks again,
    Jennifer Jensen

  22. Transitoria

    Great article! I love literary fiction AND commercial fiction. Sometimes, it’s difficult to designate a book as one or the other and you’ve proved that it’s possible for a single book to be both.

    It’s good to have verification that my job is to write and to leave the worrying to someone else.

    I feel better now and would love to add THE GREAT LENORE to my collection.


  23. Q

    I’ve been working on this story for 10 years. Research has taken up a lot of that time. Revisions has taken up a large part of it too. Last, reading the genre I like to write has taken up the rest. Finally, I have all these pages that I submit to an agent at a writer’s workshop. He says “Wow, I’m impressed – you’ve written your backstory on your characters. Wish my authors would do more of that. Now you can write the story.” Cool I think. Backstory hmmmm. So I’m thinking I’ll will this monster to my granddaughter to finish for me. ;o)

  24. mindbuilder

    I am working on my first novel, so obviously I am no expert, but this article rings true. My opinion is that nearly all of us know, at our core, when we are off track. It’s more important to worry about your own feedback first. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t and needs a revisit and some revision is in order. Subjective. After that, you take into account editorial feedback. Objective. Revise as many times as you need to but once you’re finished, let the worry go. Let it ride however its going to ride and hang on and enjoy it whether it brings you success or the lessons of failure. Worry puts too much of a break on the creative process.

  25. DahrisClair

    This article hit me where I live. I’ve been stalled on the sequel by distractions too numerous to mention. I’m a late bloomer and would like to finish what I’ve started. I take your comments and advice to heart. Thank you.

  26. artrubio

    Great article. I’ve never written a novel, but have published some articles and short stories, and of course I’ve had my share of rejections. The key is to not take it personally, and just continue writing and submitting.

    There are so many reasons why an editor might not accept an article pitch or a short story, but 99% of the time it’s not because he thinks you suck as a writer.

  27. dreamingnina

    Great article (I know, everyone’s saying it; it’s true). I just submitted my first short story to a magazine, but didn’t really start to worry until after I had sent it. In a way, I suppose this is good; I wasn’t worried during the writing process, which would have distracted me. Of course, worrying now is distracting me from my current projects, which include NaNoWriMo.

    Good advice for any aspiring writer.

  28. dianasword

    Sweet Freedom! Your article reminded me of William Faulkner’s career changing decision. “One day,” he said, “I seemed to shut the door between me and all the publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write.” And now I can write…thank you.

  29. MysterWright

    Excellent advice. Nobody knows and that includes us. They could very well be guiding us into something that’s a challenge. A new adventure. :) Like any good parent would. Not that they are your parent per se but if they invest in you then they do have an interest. <3

  30. ruthann

    It would be great to hear anything from an agent- other than a form letter–of rejection. It’s getting an agent that seems to be the big challenge—not writing. Don’t we all write because we have to? Making a good living from writing would be the ultimate lifestyle.

  31. lisabell2911


    Thank you for a great reminder. I’ve struggled with whether to seek an agent in order to maybe get in with the big guys or take a chance with a smaller publisher. Your article reminded me again, regardless of the publisher, my success depends on whether readers like it, not whether a publisher is well-known. You are so right – my job is to write first, and write well. Unfinished, unsubmitted manuscripts never become a book.

    Best wishes with The Great Lenore.

  32. fhoule

    Nice to hear that some publishers will still take a chance. Good for you for not giving up. It is an inspiration for the rest of all. God knows we must all love to write to barricade ourselves from the world so we can put pen to paper (well keyboard stroke to Word). Wishing you much success. And keep writing.

  33. dginta

    A candid article that offers what I am inclined to call the most solid piece of advice on writing. Writing well while keeping one’s writing identity intact. It’s real and I like that. Good article, thank you.

  34. JosieV

    I struggled for a while to classify my fiction manuscript–was it mainstream or literary fiction? Then I queried an agent who was looking for “accessible literary fiction” which seemed to satisfy my dilemma. When he offered representation, one of the first things he told me was to stop worrying about labels. What JM says is true–that we have to concentrate on creating great work–because great writing will find an audience. It may take time and may not have the mass appeal we secretly dream of, but if we love what we write, and we’ve made it to the highest quality we’re capable of, we’ve succeeded in all the ways that matter.

  35. tlbyford

    I think publishers have to cross their fingers in hope on every project. Readers are ultimately in control of a books success monetarily and culturally.

    Thanks for sharing your story and giving hope to other aspiring authors.

    Best of luck with The Great Lenore.

  36. MichelleAntonia

    What a timely gem of advice. Thank you for telling me exactly what I needed to hear. And thank you for reminding me that positive realities do exist in the pursuit of this dream.

  37. Sabine French

    Christine Kane, a creativity/business mentor (www.ChristineKane.com), suggests that when a creative is worried about someone “getting” their work, remember: “SWSWSW,” which stands for Some WIll, Some Won’t, So What?
    This has helped me keep it all in perspective (sorta ;-).

  38. honeykat

    I recently participated in NPR’s Three Minute Fiction competition. The range of opinions expressed on their website and Facebook page for the posted stories showed the tremendous divergence in readers’ taste. Of course, that’s going to be true of agents, publishers and reviewers, as well.
    Would love to win a copy of your book: I like the cover and am curious about your “too literary”/”too commercial” creation! Sounds like just the sort of concoction I would enjoy!

  39. grannygirl

    Thanks for the encouragement. I feel God has been urging me to write, so that is my Winter Season project. I have found several good books on writing and grammar. Your article gives me just the right ooomph I need…to just write!!! And all the rest will work itself out. Thank You So Much For Sharing and God Bless!!!


  40. sylviashipp

    One of my biggest problems in staying motivated enough to finish writing my novel has been that I’ve let everyone’s opinions get in the way of the story I’ve been wanting to tell. First it was a writing workshop, where I learned a lot about good storytelling, but was told to try to tell the story in a different way. Then it was a literary agent. And now I’ve realized that I’ve become gun-shy to boldly plow through it, afraid of making mistakes. So, your article came at a good time for me, in that I need to just focus on telling the story the way I want, and not let outsiders influence it while I’m in the process of creating it. Thanks!

  41. linzlang

    thanks for the advice. my husband and i are both aspiring writers and we’re finding that worry and doubt can be pretty nasty to deal with at times. but reading articles like this really do help to get a better mindset and just keep us writing. after all, someone eventually is bound to feel what you’ve written has promise and if you’re dedicated to be in it for the long haul like we are you just keep working and keep writing and keep a hopeful mindset. i love when writers share their experiences like this too, sometimes you get this idea that it must have been easy for all of those books that are already out there and it’s nice to know that struggles are shared but that they can also be overcome. thanks again!

  42. Angelia

    Excellent article! You never know who is going to take a chance and if you don’t take the risk yourself, you’re not going to reap an eventual reward (s). The saying goes “Don’t Judge a book by its Cover.” That applies to anything in writing, really.

  43. ALS

    That’s such an encouragement. I’ve been struggling with writing for the specific audience and not just writing the story in the best way possible and this gives me a new hope! Congratulations on your great publication and sales!

  44. holleechadwick

    Who really knows why a publishing house chooses one book over another. As a book editor, I would hope that I know, but for the most part, you just have to catch the eye of that one person who “gets” what you are writing.

    Then again, who really knows? As you say, the writer’s job is to write well.

    Excellent article.