By Dan Koboldt
Perseverance is probably the most important factor in building a successful writing career. NaNoWriMo offers a telling example of this. Thousands of people around the world attempt to write a novel during this event, but less than 20% of them actually do. This is my seventh year in NaNoWriMo, and I can tell you that there’s only one way to win it: stubborn, dogged, unfailing perseverance. The people who finish NaNoWriMo write every single day. They write even after they’ve fallen behind, their friends have quit, and their spouses are packing a suitcase. NaNoWriMo winners keep going no matter what.
Persistence counts in publishing, too. Most literary agencies receive hundreds of queries a week from aspiring authors. Only a fraction of those will result in an offer of representation. Editors, too, are overwhelmed with submissions of agented manuscripts. Simply put, there is not enough room in the traditional publishing system for all of the authors who would like to be part of it.
We would like to think that talent is the single biggest determinant of whose books are published, but I don’t believe it is. Neither does Ben Bova. In his book The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells, Bova writes, “Have you ever wondered why writers of mediocre talent get published while greater talents do not? The answer is guts. Drive. Perseverance. Talent is not enough.”
My own story might support this. When The Rogue Retrieval first went out on submission, I had pretty high hopes. It was thrilling to think that editors at storied SF/F imprints – whose books I’ve been reading since I was a kid – were considering my work. But as the months passed and the rejections rolled in, it was harder and harder to remain optimistic. Finally, we got a somewhat detailed (read: scathing) rejection from a very well-known editor, who was kind enough to point out some areas where the book could be improved.
My agent (Jennie) and I agreed that we should spend some time revising before submitting to more editors. I asked three of my writing friends to rip my manuscript a new one, which they did in short order. Over the next two and a half months, the book got a complete overhaul.
I’ll be honest and say that it was a hard time for me. A dark time for me. I’d come so far, and my dream seemed so close… but now I was basically starting over. I wanted to be writing a new book, damn it, not revising an old one! The workload was massive, and summer – the dreaded lull period of the publishing industry – loomed ever closer. But I worked my ass off and got the job done.
The next round of submissions was strikingly different. We had an editor interested within two weeks, and an offer from a major house within a month. That might seem fast – and it certainly was for that round – but it had been almost nine months since I’d first gone on submission, and over a year since I’d signed with Jennie.
The media sometimes paints a different picture about what it’s like to break in. We all know an author who got an agent within a week and a book deal within a month. We’ve all read about the college sophomore who sold film rights to Hollywood, or the waitress whose first crack at a novel landed a six-figure advance. But these are severe outliers from the typical experience.
For most authors, publishing is a long slog. We spend years developing our craft. We write, revise, and workshop more books. We see them rejected by agents or editors or acquisitions boards. We endure the psychological torment of one-star reviews, lackluster sales, and literary obscurity. The only authors who get through this gauntlet and find any kind of success are the ones who persevere. Successful authors face the rejection, criticism, and financial strain as everyone else, but they keep writing.
In our modern world, the supply of would-be authors is exponentially higher than the demand of the publishing industry. For every author who breaks in, there are hundreds who remain out in the cold. These odds may be slim, but they’re certainly not zero, either. The question you should ask yourself is this:
How bad do you want it?
Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher, bowhunter, and sci-fi/fantasy author from the Midwest. His debut novel The Rogue Retrieval, about a Vegas magician who infiltrates a pristine medieval world, is available for pre-order and will be published by Harper Voyager in January 2016.