Kate Flora: I’ve been sitting in the writer’s chair now for almost thirty-nine years, ten of them spent in the grueling sadness of the unpublished writer’s corner. I’ve been up, as in, “Oh my gosh, my agent just got me a three-book hard/soft deal.” I’ve been down, way down, after being dropped by a terse e-mail from my editor (yes, seriously) six books into writing a series I loved. I’ve been way up when a book went to auction, got a six figure advance, and became a book club selection. I’ve been way down when the sales figures for an award-winning book didn’t earn out the tiny advance I was paid. There are some interesting lessons I’ve taken away from all of this.
First, and something I always share with my writing students, is that a writer has to believe in her own work and affirmatively own her right to call herself a writer. The world of publishing, and the task of getting published, can be brutal. Often, the message from the universe is that your work sucks and you suck and anything you can think of has already been done, and better by someone else. Give it up, dreamer, you should go do something else. In order to get through the harsh message days, the days of silence when your book is out for consideration, or the words “no thanks” scribbled in pencil next to a coffee stain on your manuscript, to stay in the chair being the creative storyteller you are, a writer has to believe that she’s entitled to write, that her writing has value. She has to have faith that the writing will improve. She has to love the process more than the notion of “being published.” And she has to work assiduously to become the best possible writer she can be so that it gets harder and harder to reject her.
This does not mean stubborn adherence to the idea that the work is always great. We all have a lot to learn from our beta readers and from our editors. A great editor (or editorial agent) can make a writer better and a story stronger. If readers aren’t getting your character or your story, it’s important to listen to that and to figure out why.
The beauty of this business is that the learning never ends.
I’ve learned (after I picked myself up off the floor and wiped my eyes) that sometimes being dropped can be the best thing that can happen, because it made me take chances. If my Thea Kozak series hadn’t been dropped (it was subsequently picked up by another publisher) I wouldn’t have started taking chances. Those chances led me to writing my Portland, Maine-based Joe Burgess police procedural series. Taking chances meant joining Susan Oleksiw and Skye Alexander in forming Level Best Books, and the amazing satisfaction of publishing crime story collections (including two Edgar nominees) and putting many first-time authors in print.
If I hadn’t decided not to let someone else decide whether I was a writer, I might have gone back to practicing law. Instead, I’ve collaborated on true crime and other nonfiction projects that let me use my legal training and my writing skills while also letting me help others put wings on their dreams.
Along the way, I’m trying to pay forward in appreciation of the generosity I was given by
my Sisters in Crime and other writers when I was starting out. When I knew nothing about promotion, my sisters were there, teaching me how to do an effective public presentation (inviting, whereas the law can be adversarial) and how to be a good citizen on a panel. In particular, the amazing B.A. Shapiro taught me how to be a good citizen on a panel, and mentor the writers coming after me. I’ve mentored dozens of writers, tried to help them stay strong when the messages from the world were unkind, and celebrated when they sold books.
I’ve learned that it’s hard, but we shouldn’t give up. We should be survivors. If they vote us off the island, we have to just swim back. Inside, most of us are tender, baby-soft souls. Solitary, curious observers who take what the world gives us and weave it into story. We wonder what makes the people around us who they are, what shapes them, and what makes them deviate from the social compact so that they allow themselves to commit crimes. To do that, and survive in the world of publishing outside ourselves, we often need to don our alligator-hide cloaks, and to be reminded, as Sisters in Crime tells us: You write alone but you’re not alone.
A former assistant attorney general for the State of Maine in the areas of child abuse and child support enforcement, Kate is a founding member of the New England Crime Bake and Maine Crime Wave conferences. She has served as editor and publisher of Level Best Books and as international president of Sisters in Crime.
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Kate Flora, you’re wonderful!
I am blushing, John. Will I see you at the Crime Wave?
Great post, Kate! Thanks for that.
Thank you. I try for the happy face and to avoid the dark truths, but sometimes we do need to speak about how hard persistence and rejection can be.
Kate. thanks for this great piece – IMO, whatever it is that compels writers – deserves celebration always and especially in the “dark days”. I’ve got the Joe Burgess and Thea Kozak books on my shelves – enjoyed every minute of the reads – and recently finished Finding Amy – which was a sad, tough tale – and enlightening about the procedural world. Like any artistic endeavor – once finished we move onto the next challenge and forget sometimes the long life of the things we’ve created –
And the next and the next, Jule. It’s hard not to let the hard stuff drag us down. I used to have a box of rejection letters I kept thinking I’d paper the bathroom with them. Just as I was thinking it was to small a room, things broke for the better.
Great advice! Thank you.
Thank you. I needed this today. And every day.
After getting a rejection letter yesterday, this is a welcome reminder.
You are an amazing writer, John. I know sending our babies out into the world is scary and risks rejection, but we must have faith in our work even when that faith gets shaken.
Thanks, Kate, for this absolutely necessary post. We writers need those reminders every day.
This is an important reminder, beautifully put. This business of publishing is so brutal. (That’s horrifying about the email drop!) Good thing writing is (mostly) fun work, engaging both emotionally and intellectually. I just signed a contract with a small press for a mystery novel, and I’m beyond thrilled. Beyond thrilled and all the way down the road to nervous. There must be a sweet spot in writing/publishing where you are comfortable and confident…right? Ack! Don’t tell me. I’m afraid I don’t want to know the answer to that one.
I really enjoyed this essay, Kate:)
Congrats on the book deal. Encircle, right? You’ll be joining such a great, supportive community with them.
You are a great writer and you are NOT alone.
This was a great read. Valuable insight from someone who has done it, and keeps doing it well. Thanks, Kate. Good stuff. TC
High praise from you, TC