[A condensed version of this article appears in the Sept/Oct 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.]
I know, another writing tip list, and yes, I realize how depressing publishing survival tips can sound, but that’s why I reached out to not just my wisest, but funniest friends in publishing.
There is only one certainty in publishing: If you are not able to put this crazy business in perspective, you will go Cocoa Puffs. You need to keep a sense of humor about it, and it’s essential you realize that the struggles you go through as a writer are the same as all writers experience. As satisfying as writing can be, publishing can be a royal pain-in-the-ass. That’s not a comment on agents, editors, and publishers. The people in this business care as much about books as anyone, and it’s in their best interests to see you get your due and buy a beautiful writing cabin upstate. The problem here is there is perhaps no business model with a more lopsided ratio of more supply than demand. So many writers, but so little real estate. Hemingway competed against a few drunken friends—how would he have handled and adjusted artistically to today’s market of four trillion new books released annually? (The Ernest Is Slow Cooking! Cookbook and The Cats of Kilimanjaro desk calendar.)
1. Handling Rejection
This is the most important tip, thus the longest here. The ability to persevere cannot be overestimated. Perhaps our generation’s greatest humor writer, Jack Handey, (Untrue Stories of Fiction) used rejection as tool: “When you start out, your work can be good, but a lot of the time it’s imitative, or plain. Rejections force you to develop your style.”
Likewise, bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls, Natalie Jenner, says, “I am now glad I was rejected for so many years before finally getting published. Not because I became better at handling rejection (I didn’t), but because I had no choice but to keep getting better as a writer. And I am glad I got better as a writer because I keep getting rejected, too.”
Venting to a support group is something every writer needs. “Take another author out for a coffee,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids. “You will feel good for being nice, they will feel good because they have saved $2.38. A literary friendship born! Or join a writer’s group (end it if everyone starts crying—this happened to me once).”
The way I deal with rejection, aside from expensive therapy, is to just take more up at-bats. It’s tiring but true advice—swing until you make contact. Gary Blackwood, bestselling author of The Devil to Pay agrees. “I find the best way of coping with rejection is to have lots of irons in the fire, so that one of them going cold isn’t such a big deal.”
“There will be highs, there will be lows,” said Mike Sacks, author of nine humor books, the most recent, Passing on the Right. “But, in the end, whatever happens will be a lot more interesting than working retail for $8 an hour on Rockville Pike or as a career temp at office parks off I-270 (both of which I could still be working). Never give up. A major part of success is just keeping down that path.”
2. Show Up
Anything good that has happened to me started with the thought, Nobody is going to notice if I don’t show up to that party/audition/intervention … but then I drag myself there. I met my wife at a funeral. It’s been said 80 percent of success is showing up. The other 20 percent we can only guess.
“Show up daily to wherever it is you like to work. Show up happy and ready to work,” says cartoonist and writer Michael Maslin, author of Peter Arno, who has been showing up at The New Yorker for 45 years.
3. Keep Learning
Your work can always improve, you can always learn is what I tell my students … and myself. Another seemingly obvious related tip but one many are guilty of, not knowing their “competition” (and that no one book is your competition. Literary agent at Talcott Notch Amy Collins adds, “Read current and bestselling books in your genre. The tone, pacing, and dialogue appreciated now is much different than 10 years ago. If you want to be published in 2022, write for 2022 readers … and spend a few minutes every week familiarizing yourself with the news in your genre. How can you expect to be taken seriously as a professional author if you do not know what is happening in your industry and genre?”
4. Stay Positive
Nobody wants to help an angry writer. “Always call your book something positive. If Crime and Punishment had been called Getting Away With It, it could have been a classic. And make sure they put a dog on the cover,” says Monty Python actor Michael Palin, author of Erebus.
5. Stay in Your Own Lane
There is always going to be someone ahead of yourself and the sooner you stop comparing yourself to others the better off you are going to be. “Don’t lose your mind every time you are left off a list you absolutely should be on,” said award-winning novelist Marcy Dermansky, author of Hurricane Girl.
6. Don’t Read Reviews
This one will rattle those who will insist one learns from criticism and say it contradicts the first rule, regarding rejection. Rejection and criticism are separate things. Constructive criticism was true before everyone in the world became a critic online and negativity became necessary for many real critics to be heard over the noise. I sincerely feel using reviews as a learning tool is now overrated and does more harm than good, including over-the-top praise. Trust the experts among your inner circle and your inner monologue. Amy Collins says, “Use beta readers and editors. Editorial feedback is a vital component to your success.”
7. Be Ready to Pivot
“Another tip,” Lenore Skenazy adds, “is to realize that your book can be something else—a movie script, animated series, or you can post it serially on a blog. You can turn it into a Twitter feed. A book with pages is like a scroll, or town crier—cool and retro, but no longer crucial for disseminating ideas.” I spent the pandemic pivoting until I found employment after MAD Magazine and others of my clients folded. Even Jesus pivoted from carpenter to bigger and better things.
8. Stay With Your Strengths
“Don’t write a novel if your heart is in essays,” advises Jack Handey.
9. Brand Yourself
The best advice I ever got was from Stuart Krasnow, the esteemed TV producer: “Be an expert.” If you’re not an expert, at least call yourself one. Everyone else does anyway.
10. Seize the Day
Following up on Lenore’s thought is Mike Sacks: “You’re in a position now as a writer where, for the first time, you can put out a book, a podcast, an article, whatever it is, on your own. You don’t need to ask for permission. If you wait long enough, you’ll be waiting forever.”
Bonus Tips for Handling Rejection
Ahhh, right, the most important tip, handling rejection. I am convinced I could do a Master Class on rejection. As a gag cartoonist on the side, rejection is a prerequisite and can be brutal, going hundreds of submissions without success. There’s a whole podcast on this subject I highly recommend by comedian Connor Ratliff called Dead’s Eyes discussing handling rejection. It’s framed in the world of acting but applies to us writers perfectly.
“When do you know when a piece is done? A good writer will go back and do corrections or punch-up the piece of writing. When you find yourself going back to the original line, that usually means a piece is finished.” Jack Handey, Untrue Stories of Fiction
“For me, what can work to help process the stress of rejection, is to go for a nice long run along the Hudson River, or to hand a blank check to an employee at Crate & Barrel and then smash a display set of dinnerware. Either can really help click that ol’ reset button!” Agent Barbara Poelle, Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions About the Book Publishing Industry
“When dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to get paper form letter rejections with idiotic excuses like ‘this is not what we’re looking for these days,’ or ‘I’m sure you'll find a good home for it elsewhere.’ Say what? A good home? I’m not looking to put grandma in a nursing home. It’s not real estate—it’s a novel.” John Blumenthal, The Strange Courtship of Abigail Bird
“…and visit the dollar bin at any bookstore. If your book isn’t in there—cheer up!” Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Kids
“Use beta readers and editors. Editorial feedback is a vital component to publishing success … your first three versions of your manuscript are just the beginning. Before you query, get your work beta read and edited by folks with real publishing experience. No one can create a polished manuscript in a vacuum. No one,” says Amy Collins, Talcott Notch.
“Bruce Jay Friedman once told me, keep a low overhead,” Mike Sacks, Passing on the Right: The Skippy Batty Battison Story.