I’m sure you’re all familiar with NaNoWriMo, which has become the best-known writing event in the nation. People all across the country commit to writing a novel during the month of November, and many claim they have succeeded.
I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I’ll admit it. I like anything that encourages writers to sit down and write. If you’ve read my Red Sneaker books, you know I advocate a no-frills, no-fuss attitude. In other words, stop whining and write already. NaNoWriMo has largely the same message. Of course, I don’t think you should do this for just a month. I think it’s a critical part of the writing life. Write every day. Get the work done. Finish and start the next one. But if NaNoWriMo gets your rear in the chair–good. If it helps you get past the urge to edit as you go, to monkey with each page before you’ve even finished a chapter–grrrrrreat!
On the other hand, the idea that you can write a good book in a month is absurd, and potentially even dangerous. At best, you might get a decent first draft done in a month, and that’s no small thing. (I’ve never done a draft in anything close to a month, but some people may be smarter. Or at least faster.) For me, the first draft is the hardest, the most painful, and the easiest to make excuses to avoid. What could be tougher than creating something out of nothing? Revising is no piece of cake–I revise and revise, typically working my way through a book ten or fifteen times before I even think about showing it to anyone else. But revision is pleasurable. I like seeing all the parts start to come together. Once I have a first draft down, I know I’ll finish the book. It’s simply a matter of time.
Should you try NaNoWriMo? First of all, let’s define terms. If you attempt this, acknowledge that what you’re doing is creating a first draft in thirty days–not a finished novel. (And by the way, 50,000 w0rds is not a publishable length for a novel in most markets.) Even then, whether you should attempt this, in my mind, depends upon whether you have trouble getting motivated. If you need a little push and this artificial calendar event helps, then by all means, try it.
What I will caution you against is trying to rush a book, that is, sacrificing quality for speed. There’s too much of that going on in the world today. When people talk about junk books, too often they pick on the growing legion of self-published novels, but the truth is, it’s going on in the traditional publishing world as well. The Big Five publishers are actively encouraging their big-name legacy writers to crank out more books, particularly series books, sometimes two or three a year.
The results are inevitable. First, authors lose their personal lives. Second, the books have not gestated as long as a good book requires, so they won’t be as good as they might’ve otherwise been. They may be perfectly competent, mind you, adequate bubble-gum, time-passing material, but much of the richness, texture, and quality will be lost. The fact that this is encouraged nonetheless shows how schizophrenic the current tradional publishing world truly is. On the one hand, they trumpet so-called upscale fiction, meaning genre fiction that is supposedly better written, that has the art and craft of a literary novel. But they’re paying their bills by enouraging their best-known writers to produce more and more quickly.
This is a relatively new development. Back in the day, when I was writing a Ben Kincaid novel a year for Random House, I occasionally suggested that I could do more–mostly because I wanted to write something different. Repeatedly I was told to chill. To have more than one book released a year would “glut the market.” Critics and fans would rebel. No one can produce good books that quickly. (And in truth, a year is often not long enough.) But today economic needs, driven by profit shortfalls stemming from the increasingly less profitable print arena, are causing publishers to change their tunes.
I don’t want to live in a world where novels are cranked out on a rigid conveyor belt. I’ve already heard tales of people dictating novels into their phones while they drive, and we know many of those Big Five legacy authors are using co-writers and ghosts who may or may not be acknowledged on the cover. Yes, I’ve always advocated an unpretentious approach to writing. But I still believe quality is paramount. The whole point of my eight Red Sneaker books (the ninth coming soon) and the conferences and the seminars is to help you produce the best book possible. If NaNoWriMo helps you get there, fine. But don’t ever do anything that compromises the quality of your work. Amazon is already flooded with mediocre books. That’s not how you break out. That’s not how you get the writing career you want.
Make your book the best it can possibly be. That’s your ticket to success. Quality.
From the Blog
I’m sure you’re all familiar with NaNoWriMo, which has become the best-known writing event in the nation. People all across the country commit to writing a novel during the month of November, and many claim they have succeeded.
Even though she’d lived through the horrors of war and the Nazi occupation, by her teens Audrey Hepburn was an accomplished ballerina. Her family had moved her to Holland in hopes of keeping her safe, but the Germans had overrun the country, destroying villages and exacting horrific and sadistic executions.
Not yet an adult, young Audrey made the brave choice to join the Dutch Resistance. She used one of the only things she had at her disposal—her talent—to help fund it. She and her fellow students would perform for this very purpose. Even as they danced, they could hear the Nazi patrols nearby, roaming the streets. Still, she and her fellow students would not be deterred and went on with their secret, underground shows to raise money for the resistance.
When they were finished, the young dancers, full of pride for both their performance and their convictions, turned toward the audience and took a bow.
But there was no applause in return.
As a kid and teen, I never got into dance like many of my friends. I spent plenty of time writing in my room, but what took most of my time was sports. I started in gymnastics, then moved to soccer, then moved to what I would eventually end up playing throughout my high school career: basketball.
In small town America, sports were a big deal. And our tiny community came out in droves to support us. By the time I got to high school, a new state-of-the-art gym had been built, and it held hordes of people.
Athletics taught me a lot about life, including how to approach it, how to discipline myself, how to overcome difficulty and many other things for which I am eternally grateful. It also taught me to love applause.
There seemed to be nothing as exhilarating as sinking a shot and hearing the roar of the crowd jumping to their feet. When the buzzer sounded and our team had won, the applause was fierce and fantastic. My sister was a cheerleader, so it was always thrilling to glance down the court and see her under the goal cheering me on with back flips and pom-poms.
But my athletic career ended. And soon I realized how quiet writing was.
I remember the day my first book came out. I was alone in my house. There was really nothing to do but wait and see how well it was received. I called my mom. She was full of mom enthusiasm. I think I might’ve gone out that night to celebrate with my family, though we had a one-year-old at the time so maybe we ordered in.
Otherwise it was business as usual. My dream of being a published author had come true and it was so quiet!
It was dawning on me that I’d rarely be with anyone as they experienced my writing. They’re in their world, reading it. I’m in my world, writing it. Our paths would most likely never cross.
There were certainly some glory days in writing. Many of my great experiences as a writer are put away in scrapbooks now, but no less fun for me to remember. And something told me to never take them for granted. I never did.
But the tides were turning in the book market right at the beginning of my career. First there were whispers, then rumors, then official memos. When I started professionally writing, the Internet was fairly new and the most a writer was expected to have was a decent looking website.
A new device, though, was about to shake the whole world of books up more than anyone could’ve dreamed. They were calling it the e-book.
Some downplayed it, not believing that people would abandon paper books for reading on some kind of computer. But pretty soon the writing was on the digital wall. And life as we knew it in publishing would never be the same.
Along with the slow and painful death of the brick-and-mortar bookstores also came the stock market crash and the housing market crisis. If ever there was an unfortunate time to try to make it as a writer, I was in it.
While publishers and agents tried to figure out new contracts that took into account e-books and the fact that a book could now never go out of print, local bookstores and chains like Barnes and Noble were still hosting book signings, even for midlist authors. It seemed the thing to do.
But even on a Saturday, the bookstore looked emptier, like a shadow of itself.
With the debut of my first book, I’d hustled to make a good relationship with our local B&N, and it had paid off. With every release I had, some not even a year apart, I was invited to sign at their store.
Heather, the community liaison who helped me coordinate the signings, always greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and a nice looking poster, and seemed genuinely excited to see me. She made sure I had a prominent place in the store. There was always a surge in the first 15 minutes—mostly friends and family—and after that, a trickle, and then it was two hours of pointing people to the bathroom and helping them find the non-fiction aisle.
Heather was fantastic. Desperately trying to make me feel comfortable, she made sure I had a Frappuccino from the Starbucks and slipped me a People Magazine here and there.
But soon that store closed, and now we writers were expected to make noise on the Internet via social media. The word “platform” started being tossed around, then enforced, and a whole new world was birthed. If there ever was any applause to be found in the publishing world, it was now replaced with a “thumbs up.”
Could there be a quieter form of approval?
Through it all, there was always the silence. The lack of applause. I didn’t realize I wanted it until it wasn’t there. Sometimes I’d print out a page and hurry it into the living room for my husband to read. He always encouraged me. But most of the time I was left to wonder how everyone was enjoying my book. Which parts were their favorites? Did they laugh at that great line on page 40? I’d never know.
Writing, I grew to learn, was going to be a place where I would need to understand that even in wild success, there would be little applause.
I had to do what I was doing not because others believed in it, but because I did. And the truth was, even though there were arenas of applause when I played basketball, at the end of the day I played the sport because I loved it. The truth was, applause wasn’t enough to get me to the gym at the crack of dawn. To run suicides. To swallow defeat. Applause alone would never be enough.
Writing had even greater meaning to me than basketball. Here I found a place to play and discover and be who God created me to be. It was on paper that I worked through my questions about life and where I gorged on curiosity. Nobody had to applaud. God was delighted to watch me. And I was delighted to escape to quiet corners and be watched.
Very soon, I got used to the silence and embraced it.
Audrey Hepburn, in a much more harrowing and courageous way, did too.
She danced to no applause for a reason. To keep from being found out, when the dance was over, the audience held their applause.
“The best audience I ever had,” Hepburn recounted, “had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
Audrey Hepburn found purpose in dancing beyond the applause. And we must do the same with writing. In all the writing you do, rarely will you meet or hear from those who’ve been touched by your work.
Every once in a while, though, when you’ve grown accustomed to the silence, God may surprise you with unexpected accolades—a letter, or a run-in at the library or something else, like He did for me.
I had only a few books under my belt the year one of my publishers, Tyndale House, invited me to come sign my new book, The Splitting Storm, at the Christian Booksellers Convention. I’d been to the convention before but mostly as an observer. Now I was the writer. It was surreal.
My editor, Jan, escorted me to the convention floor. I felt my breath catch and my stomach roll with nausea. Was I dressed okay? Did I look as nervous as I felt? A thousand stupid questions flooded my mind and I tried to settle myself down.
Don’t miss this moment.
Jan and I chatted on our way to their booth, which was large and impressive. I saw it a little earlier when I was walking around. I had watched with interest as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye sign their latest bestselling Left Behind book, graciously interacting with the hundreds and hundreds of people who waited to have a chance to meet them.
I followed Jan through the back door of the booth. We stood behind a panel as we waited for it to be my turn. I could see out the front enough to observe a very long line of people snaking around velvet ropes, so long it turned the corner and I couldn’t see the end. I stuck my hands in my pockets and turned toward Jan, happy to wait a little longer for my turn.
“I guess they’re still signing books,” I said. “I saw their line earlier. It was massive!”
“Who?” Jan asked.
“Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye,” I said. I pitched my thumb toward where the line was. “They were signing fast, but there’s still a ton of people out there.”
Jan leaned to the side to look.
“Rene,” she laughed, “those people are here to see you.”
Yeah, those were the moments scrapbooks were made for. But along a twenty-year journey, there has only been a smattering of applause, light at that, and sometimes years between. And that has been okay.
Stephen King put it best, I think: “I have written because it fulfilled me. I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
Here’s a brief history of how I decided to become a writer:
I was in college and, forced to declare a major, I decided to go with Mass Communications. It seemed to be a nice umbrella of a major, with lots of post-graduation options. Plus, I liked to talk.
Somewhere between English I and a charcoal sketching elective I regret taking, I landed a movie review show that aired on a channel with a decimal point in it. My co-host was named Kevin. Together, we spouted off opinions about movies we were barely old enough to see. Kevin loved the limelight. He was a dance major that somehow missed his calling to television and in his opinion, stand-up comedy. I, on the other hand, loved movies but didn’t get a kick out of talking about them in front of a camera with an angry, glowing red eye/dot on top of it.
However, this show somehow convinced my advisor that I should be in broadcast journalism and from then on, I had an emphasis within my major. For a whole semester. Ironically, it was a movie that undeclared me from journalism.
In my Intro to Broadcasting class, the professor showed Broadcast News. A classic for sure. One of the best movies I’d ever seen. And also a clear sign for me to get out of Dodge. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that broadcasting was not my calling.
As I thought about what I wanted for my future—my cup of tea, so to speak—I realized that what I really wanted was a cup of coffee. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of lifestyle I longed for. Cups of coffee consumed leisurely in a place where I could relax, think, and daydream.
So I decided to change my major to criminal justice so I could join the FBI.
This is where you’ll understand that a divine God was constantly intervening in my life. Because as quickly as I headed to the dean’s office to make what would surely be the worst decision of my life, I was intercepted by my English professor, Dr. Phelps, who wanted to talk to me.
“I think,” he said, “you have a future as a writer.”
He was the first person who had said such a thing. A real writer? Me? I’d never considered that I could do something like that. Sure, I liked to write stories, but I’d never thought beyond it being a hobby. And so began my formal education, under a Mass Comm degree, in screenwriting.
My last semester at the university, Dr. Phelps suggested that I had probably taken as many screenwriting courses as possible, and wondered if I wanted to work a semester on fiction.
“No,” I declared. “I don’t want to write fiction. Not interested.”
But he insisted, said it would be good for me. I sighed. It was either that or Charcoal Drawing II, so it made the decision easier.
It was in this single semester of writing that I learned the vast differences between screenwriting and fiction. It felt like I was starting completely over in my writing education. And by the look on Dr. Phelps’ face when he read my first chapter, I apparently had.
So today I’m going to share with you the top five mistakes I made early on in my career as a novelist. I had way more than five, but this is a blog post not a dissertation, so I have to keep it brief.
Maybe understanding these will help save you from some painful editorial notes down the road. Don’t worry—I’ve always had to learn the hard way. If I can spare you the horror of the bloody red pen, I’m happy to do it!
Don’t describe the wallpaper.
If you’ve done any study of writing fiction, you’ve undoubtedly heard, “don’t describe the wallpaper” as a warning to avoid bad, overly boring and clichéd description that nobody cares about. Well, leave it to me to pull off a double cliché.
I remember sitting in Dr. Phelps’ office watching him read my first chapter. That man had mastered the fine art of no expression, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Finally, he set the pages down.
“Well,” he said, “you’ve actually described the wallpaper.”
“Uh huh,” I said. He’d instructed me when we began that while screenwriting was short on description, fiction thrived on it.
“I mean, you literally described the wallpaper in the room.” He glanced down at the paper. “For two pages.”
To be fair to me, I also described the wall. But that was my first introduction to the idea that description in fiction is an exercise in self-control. It’s amazing when you close your eyes and imagine a place how much detail you can see. But detail, I learned, has to mean something.
A common mistake new fiction writers make is that they don’t discern which details matter. Describing wallpaper isn’t a bad choice, but it’s how you describe it, and more importantly, why, that matters. If the purple flowers on the wall evoke an important feeling or memory from your character, then it’s worth the effort to describe it.
Details, for the sake of painting a picture, are never enough in fiction. My rule of thumb is this: every device, whether it be dialogue or description, plot or characterization, must work double time for you. That means that description must do more than describe. It must add to character or plot or something else.
A high word count means your writing needs to improve.
I’ve been so lucky to have great editors over the years. They’ve been compassionate, supportive and encouraging, and that was especially true for my first novel, Ghostwriter. My first editorial call went wonderfully, with much discussion about how much they liked what I had turned in. I was feeling good. Too good to understand there was another half of a discussion coming.
“And one last thing,” Dave said as we were winding down. “We need to talk about your word count.”
“Uh huh?” This didn’t raise the slightest bit of alarm in me. I know better now.
“Well, we noticed that the draft you turned in is 187,000 words.”
“Yes,” I said. It was a complex novel with three stories woven into one. Seemed reasonable.
“As you might have seen in your contract, your novel can’t go over 120,000 words.”
My mind flashed to what I remembered about my contract. Due date. Pay out schedule. That was about it.
I felt the slow burn of reality as I understood I was about to have to cut 67,000 words out of my novel. Eventually, with the help of what was surely the entire editorial team and the literary equivalent of a backhoe, I managed to get it down to 137,000 words. Everyone was so exhausted they called it good.
But there is a reason why most novels run between 80,000-120,000 words. It’s a formula that has proven to be dependable over the years. When you get into high word counts, you’re either channeling George R. R. Martin or you’re overwriting.
The more novels I wrote, the shorter they got, and that’s because I became a better self-editor. I learned to write tighter, and that made my novels read faster. If you’re overshooting a reasonable word count for your genre, get the pen out. It’s time to cut. And before you look at story, look at sentences and paragraphs. Your story might be fine—it may be your sentences that are taking up all that space.
But here’s a bonus tip: If you feel your writing is tight but your word count is still elevated, then implement this rule: Get in late; get out early. It’s a technique used by screenwriters but it works well in fiction, too. It means take a look at each passage and see if you can get into the moment any later than you started. And also see if you can get out of it any earlier. Trimming the beginnings and ends of scenes can save you a lot of time—and words.
Put down the thesaurus. Now.
One of the worst things a novelist or any other kind of writer can do is become dependent on a thesaurus. Trying to improve a sentence by finding a replacement word will almost always make your writing weaker. Why? Because writing is not just about word choice, it’s about creating imagery. A different word won’t always paint a better picture. Feeling like your sentence isn’t saying all it should? Whip out a metaphor or simile instead of googling synonyms. Create a clever turn of phrase. Do almost anything rather than swap one word for another, especially if you’ve had to google it. Glossier words that you wouldn’t have known existed had you not looked them up won’t add anything to your story. And your readers are going to have to stop and google that word because they won’t know it either.
As Stephen King puts it, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
What your character looks like is the least of your concerns.
In the early days of creating stories, I would cut out pictures of people from magazines so that I would have a solid visual idea of what I wanted my characters to look like. Then I would try to find clever ways of inserting their description into the story. Below are some examples of how to do it really poorly. Mine weren’t this bad, I tell myself.
“Debbie, your brown, shoulder length hair looks so nice today.”
Rob gazed at himself in the mirror, noticing his toned arms, soft blue eyes and the attractive curve of his jawline.
What your character looks like will hardly matter to your reader at the end of the day. How your character looks at life is much more interesting. And if you want to get really intriguing and have the best of both worlds, explore how your character’s looks influence how your character sees the world. If you insist on having character description, at least make it interesting:
Jacie fingered her hair, the same color as her mom’s, the same color as dirt, as lifeless as both.
The novel is lived from the inside out. Let us experience the story through them rather than as an outside observer simply watching them.
Don’t create a character you would hang out with.
I have a friend. We’ll call her Laura. And friend might be too generous of a word. Laura is the kind of person who I want to stand near during a party, but don’t want to be associated with in case things go south. And things can go south really quickly with Laura. Laura’s filter works about as well as water on a grease fire. Her mouth is constantly getting her in trouble. So while I don’t want to be caught in a dust up, I like being in a room to watch it happen, because Laura has a really bad habit of throwing caution to hurricane force winds.
We need more Lauras. Maybe not in life but definitely in stories. The safe, reserved, predictable character better have a heck of a plot to ride on or a book can get boring pretty fast. The best books have great plots and even better characters. And when someone picks up a novel, they don’t want to read about themselves. They want to read about the person they can’t stop watching, maybe even the person they want to be—like never backing down from a fight. Like saying out loud that thing that should be kept in the head. Like walking toward danger.
Make sure your plot isn’t doing all the heavy lifting. Your character has to carry his or her weight too. And it’s pretty easy to accomplish. Just make them do everything you wouldn’t.
I never did join the FBI. But I had a brush with them back in 1995. My place of employment, a church, was right next to the Murrah Building, which was bombed on April 19th. I’ll fondly remember First United Methodist for many reasons, not the least of which was that it gave me my first office. It was a broom closet. For real. But it was mine.
After the bombing, the church sustained heavy damage and became the morgue and a crime scene. It would be weeks before we were allowed back in to collect our belongings. But once allowed, I hurried up the steps to the second floor in order to collect my most valuable item there—a novel I’d been working on for months, left in my computer on a floppy disk.
To my horror…it was gone.
Weeks were spent trying to contact the FBI (in the middle of a major investigation) to see if someone might’ve taken the disk, but to no avail. It was gone.
So I started over. That book would later become my second published novel, Troubled Waters.
But somewhere, I’m pretty sure there’s an FBI agent moonlighting as a novelist.
It’s turning into a no-excuses sort of year. Not because I haven’t had plenty of excuses, but because, no matter what the world throws at me, if I want to be a writer, I have to write. Even when the universe is hurling trials like hail in an Oklahoma thunderstorm, if you want to be a writer, you have to write.
Trust me. I know of what I speak.
This summer, in the course of three days, two of my children were involved in two accidents which resulted in one broken thumb, one broken sternum, three broken wrists, three broken ribs, three surgeries, and ten days in the hospital. (You can read more about their accidents here.)
I had some excuses. And those excuses were more than you might imagine. Sure, there was the last-minute trip to Salt Lake City—did I mention one of those accidents happened out of state? There was the time in ICU watching our son struggle to breathe. There were the wrist surgeries. There were all the follow-up appointments—including two ER visits—to deal with the lingering medical issues, casts, and more.
But that’s not all. As if the time involved wasn’t enough of an excuse to take a month or two or six off writing, there was also the emotional toll. We almost lost them. Two out of three of our children could have been snatched from our lives in an instant.
Thank God they weren’t. But they could have been.
That thought has plagued me more than once.
So yeah, I’ve had my share of excuses. And I did take some time off writing, obviously. But I started this post telling you it had turned into a no-excuses year. I needed to write.
The question was, how? How was I supposed to set aside time I didn’t have, awaken my writer’s brain from its long sleep, and climb out of the emotional wreckage left in the wake of the accidents? On the far side of that struggle, I have a few tips to share.
- First, you have to know why you’re writing. If you don’t have a strong, compelling why, then writing will be the first thing you cast aside when life gets hard. For me, the reason is simple. Writing is my livelihood. If I choose not to write, then I’m going to have to get a real job, one that requires me to do things like change out of my yoga pants and put on makeup every single day. I shudder at the thought. Your reason for writing might be loftier than mine—to write the story of your heart, to share the lessons of your life with others. Whatever your reason, write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.
- Second, you have to decide you’re going to do it. Have you ever had to push a broken-down car? Ever noticed how hard it is to get that sucker moving from a dead stop? Jumping back into writing felt about as easy as pushing a Hummer with the emergency brake on. I decided that, no matter what, I would write again. In my case, I went on a short writing retreat. I spent two days working on a new story. The first few words and scenes and chapters were difficult, but I pushed through and got that Hummer moving.
- Third, you have to create a plan to keep the momentum going. When I got back from that trip, I scheduled writing for the following week—and then blew it as many days as I managed it. Doctor’s appointments and editing projects and… excuses, excuses. But I kept scheduling that writing time until I pushed that Hummer to the crest of the hill. And then, the words flowed, and the Hummer barreled down fast. The novella I started writing at that retreat in September, I finished last week. The hardest part was the starting.
If you’re a writer, you have to write. Even when it’s hard. No. Especially when it’s hard. As writers, it’s our job to take all that hard stuff—the emotions, the fears, the worries, the sleepless nights—and use it.
It’s been said that a cow’s superpower is the ability to transform grass into steak. Impressive, I know.
But a writer’s superpower is the ability to transform the breadth of life—heartbreak and happiness, bitterness and beauty, fear and love and everything in between—into words on a page. Words that heal. Words that transform. Words that bring laughter and tears. Words that speak truth. Words that glorify the One who created the entire universe—with His words.
It’s been a no-excuses kind of year, because I’m a writer, and writers write. No excuses.
In 1968, composer Alex North walked into the New York City premiere of the latest film he had been commissioned to score, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was fresh off Oscar nominations for Sparticus, Cleopatra, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It was another chance for this extraordinary composer’s talent to shine and he arrived hopeful he’d receive accolades for a project on which he’d worked exceedingly hard.
Remember his name: Alex North. We’ll get back to him in a moment.
A few blogs ago I promised that I would share my worst rejection story. I had to take some time to remember a lot of the details. I’ve pushed it into the far recesses of my mind. But even successes don’t always erase the memory of failures.
At the time I was full of enthusiasm and ready to take on the world. Little did I know the world was about to beat me to a bloody pulp.
I was young when I began my publishing quest—hardly over twenty—and I looked even younger. I hadn’t figured out that a ponytail and Gap overalls weren’t exactly screaming “I’m a professional.” Sometimes I was overlooked just because of how I looked. But I was who I was and determined to make it as a writer.
I was lucky early on to have a few mentors, one by the name of Jim. Jim had insisted that I come to Kansas City for the big Christian book convention. He told me to meet him at the front and he’d give me a pass. I showed up in—you guessed it—my Gap overalls. Jim, in his sixties, looked me over and smirked. “That’s the outfit you decided on today?”
I glanced down and shrugged. I figured I should be comfortable. It was a big convention. I pictured myself walking the carpet, doing mostly recon work, maybe spotting a favorite author or two at a book signing.
Jim had other plans.
Fresh through the gates, Jim took me by the arm and marched me straight toward a booth.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“We’re being professional writers,” he said.
My heart skipped a beat. Somehow I sensed that something terrible was about to happen to me. The kind of terrible that you don’t want to be caught in overalls for.
The next thing I know, we’re standing at a table. I peer up and there is a huge sign announcing one of the big publishing houses. The rest of what happened is kind of a blur. Jim stuck out his hand. Another man stuck out his hand. These two men gave hearty handshakes while I stuck my own hands deep into my overall pockets.
Jim’s elbow nudged me—I think to wake me out of whatever trance I’d gone into—and he said, “Rick, this is Rene Gutteridge. And she’s got a novel she would like to pitch to you.”
I have a way better poker face these days, but let me assure you that whatever expression Rick saw on me immediately let him know that I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t particularly astute and I possibly might not even be in the game.
“Oh. Is that so?” Rick asked.
I mumbled something. I think Jim rolled his eyes at this point.
“Well,” Rick said, “I’m just on my way to lunch. If you’ll walk with me, I’d be happy to hear your elevator pitch.”
He had already started walking.
Jim gave me the kind of look that says, “You’re totally disappointing me far beyond your dress code.”
So I hurried after Rick.
And wouldn’t you know it—we stepped onto an elevator.
Jim just stood there and watched the doors close. Smirking.
Rick glanced at his watch again. I’m pretty sure it was just for effect.
I took a deep breath.
This was my moment.
I was a writer.
This could be my big break!
I rolled through all the different lessons I’d been reading about the thirty second elevator pitch—which was exactly none.
“Well,” I began, “it’s the story of a, uh, an…an editor at a publishing house who begins to…well, he begins to get, receive, this anonymous—“
The elevator doors opened. Rick stepped out. I kind of wished the elevator had just dropped but no such luck. So I followed him, my cheeks basically heat conductors.
Rick reached into the pocket of his suit and pulled out a card. “Tell you what, why don’t you just send me the proposal?”
I nodded and watched Rick walk away.
That, I thought, was the most embarrassing moment of my life.
Hyperbole is the quickest way to get the universe to prove you wrong.
It wasn’t long after that disastrous pitch that I went to a drama conference. I had been writing a lot of things for stage. I’d found some actors willing to muscle their way through my underdeveloped yet wildly on-the-nose attempts at dialogue and somehow we were managing to pull a few things off here and there.
I’d been working on a three-act play and it was the first time I felt like I was making some progress toward becoming a real writer. The actors seemed to want to be there for rehearsals. There was excitement in the air. Maybe…just maybe…I’d achieved something special.
So we all decided on a whim to travel to this drama conference. They were attending acting workshops. I was attending writing workshops. I think that’s the first time we called ourselves a “troupe.”
And it was the first time that I let anyone outside my small group of friends read my work. I had actually submitted it. And not just to anyone. To one of the better known playwrights around. He was a legend—you know, the kind that sit on panels and they give nametags to. He had an accent. Not foreign but academic.
I was so excited.
My appointment to meet with him was late in the day. Everyone had finished their classes and my one-on-one was the last thing we had to do before returning to the hotel.
The meeting was held in a room. I remember it as stark white. Maybe not. But it felt sterile to me. I think it’s because all the warmth in the room got sucked right out as I set foot toward destiny.
He sat against a wall, motioned for me to come sit, and what happened in the next fifteen minutes can only be described as a literary bloodbath.
I remember red ink. Irritation. And anger. His eyes flashed with the three D’s: disapproval, disdain and disgust. He turned the pages of my play, pointing at this and that and barking at how many simple mistakes I could’ve avoided had I paid the least amount of attention to what I was doing.
He was offended at some of the religious points I was trying to make too, he said.
I don’t think I heard another word after that. Not until he finished by saying, “Keep the first page, toss the rest.”
He scooted the pages to me and just stared. I gathered up the papers and hurried out of the room only to be met by something even worse: six smiling faces—my friends—all eagerly anticipating the good news I was going to share.
I did the only thing I could do.
I burst into tears.
Rejected. Not just my work. But me. Apparently I was so bad I was offensive. That’s a whole other level of bad.
It took me many months to get over it. Even while we toured with that show—and had scores of people tell us how much they loved it—I was haunted by that day. By the look in this man’s eyes. My heart. My soul. Right there on the page—it had disgusted him.
It took special people to help me out of the gutter of self-doubt. It wouldn’t be the last time I was to be rejected. Many more were around the corner. And as I became published and built my writing career, they weren’t confined to sterile white rooms near walls, but some were public. Real public. Receiving criticism, it turned out, seemed as much a part of the job as the writing.
At this point I would love to say that if you stick with it long enough, eventually you’ll grow this really thick skin and it’ll roll right off your back.
I guess so. If you ever stop caring.
I’ve never been able to stop caring. I write because I care. I care because I believe in what I’m writing. I have not ever been able to find that comfortable, aloof zone that many high profile writers brag about.
It stung on day one. It still stings. I think it always will.
My skin is not thicker. In fact, I think it’s worn down pretty thin at this point.
But I learned something else: I must really love to do this thing called writing. Because why else would I keep enduring this? Rejection, I found out, ends up making you understand that you have a calling—a deep love—for it. You keep coming back for more, even though you can’t explain it. And somehow, you keep getting better because something far inside of you wants to prove all your critics wrong.
Alex North. Remember him?
As Mr. North walked the red carpet of the New York City premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I imagine, though he’d had many successes, it was always a nerve-racking experience. Will the audience like it? Will they understand my artistic choices?
Camera bulbs flashed. He shook hands with old acquaintances and was dressed to the nines.
He sat down in the theater, the lights dramatically lowered, he settled in for a two hour show and then the unthinkable happened.
He realized that his entire score had been replaced. Stanley Kubrick, at some point, decided to use classical music instead.
It’s just that no one remembered to call Alex North to let him know.
It was reported that North was devastated. And who wouldn’t be?
The score would remain unheard, until, decades later, Jerry Goldsmith would rerecord it for the world to hear. And many critics who heard it agreed that Kubrick had made a terrible choice by not using it.
I bet you thought that my rejection story ended with me walking out of that room and bursting into tears, didn’t you?
Not so fast. There’s more.
Fast forward ten or so years. I’m a well-published novelist by now and I’m attending book conventions not as a young, naïve girl in overalls, but rather a seasoned writer who has been invited to sign books.
A group of my friends decided to meet one evening in a hotel lobby to catch up. We had a great time, but always the first to turn in, I said my goodbyes and went to the front of the lobby to catch a cab back to my own hotel.
And that’s when I saw him.
The man who nearly ended my writing career before it started was walking toward me.
I could never forget his face as long as I live. It was seared into my soul!
Clearly, though, he’d forgotten mine, because he smiled at me as he approached and asked which hotel I was staying at. I told him and he said, “Oh, that’s mine! Care to share a cab?”
We climbed in and he glanced down at the badge I still had around my neck. His face lit with surprise. “I know you!” he said. I swallowed, a little breathless, afraid of what he would say next. “I know your books. You’re a terrific writer.”
And we chatted all the way to the hotel.
I watched him walk to the elevators as I stood in the hotel lobby. I’d always imagined him to be quite a monster. It turned out he was just an ordinary man. Maybe I had caught him on a bad day all those years ago. Or maybe he’d grown some tact and generosity. Whatever the case, it was a surreal moment. And it taught me an important lesson.
Rejection, however difficult and however cutting, is only that. It does not define who we are unless we let it.
Alex North went on to compose many more scores, and receive an honorary Academy Award.
Rene Gutteridge went on. And that might be my greatest achievement of all.