Monday, March 17, 2008

The Pursuit of Excellence

Sixteen years ago I set out to become a published novelist. During that year I took it upon myself to outline and write my very first book. After finishing the first draft I went through and re-wrote it before holding my breath and handing it to a few trusted readers. One reader, especially, who happened to be a professional proofreader, gave me lots (and lots) to think about. I re-wrote the book again. And again. And again.

After re-writing it a dozen times I began the agent search. I got such glowing rejections as:

*Thank you very much for submitting YET SHE MUST DIE. There is no doubt that you’re a real writer, and YET SHE MUST DIE is merely the first of many books. However, despite its strengths, given today’s tough fiction market, I didn’t feel quite enthusiastic enough to represent your manuscript.*

OR

*It’s a good story, nicely written, but alas, I’m afraid it just doesn’t seem right for us.* (which meant, of course, that they didn’t like it!)

And then there were those simple but heartbreaking one-liners, such as: Sorry, I’ll pass.

I persevered, rewriting and sending out queries, until I decided it was time to cut my losses and move on. While I felt good about the book, it obviously was not of a high enough quality for the market.

I wrote another novel. And another. None of these caught the lasting attention of any agent, although I continued to receive that oxymoron: the positive rejection. Somehow, that was enough to keep me going.

I spent my time writing, reading other books in the genre, and going to writers’ conferences where I made contacts, attended workshops, and learned about the business. I took what I learned and funneled every bit of it into my writing.

Finally I was able to write a book that caught the eye of both an agent and a publisher. In 2004, thirteen years after I began the attempt, I was published. And you know what? It felt great.

I look back at that first novel I wrote, and while I have sentimental feelings for it, I wonder how I ever thought it was ready to be published. While it had, as the agents noted, some things of value, it simply wouldn’t be able to compete with other books. Those agents knew what they were doing. But I refuse to be embarrassed that I sent it out. That book was a stepping-stone. A learning tool. Some might say that first not-quite-good-enough manuscript is a necessity. Because it taught me a world of lessons.

It has been a hard road, and a long one. Every writer knows the pain of rejection and the sinking feeling when those letters come back saying No.

But hopefully every writer will also feel the joy that comes with seeing her work come to fulfillment. She will know that she persevered, taking what she learned and using it to pursue excellence in her writing. And she will continue to perfect her craft – because I know I certainly never stop learning! – making her work the best it can be.

We at SinC love to hear stories of success and how the pursuit of excellence pays off. If you have a story to share, we’d love to know about it.

Judy Clemens
Vice-president, SinC
Author of the Stella Crown mysteries and LOST SONS, coming out in April

8 comments:

nancy martin said...

Great topic, Judy. The pursuit of excellence should be foremost in all our minds.

I still take classes, read how-to books, use multiple critique partners and always, always tell my editor to be ruthless with me. Nothing is more embarrassing than looking back on some of my old books (I've written nearly 50) and see all my shortcuts, cliches and poor plotting. Erk!

Has anyone else taken the Robert McKee workshops lately? I wonder if our reactions were the same.

Judy Clemens said...

Wow, 50 books! I've only published 6 (written more, but they're in a box!) but I still avoid going back and looking at them. I figure I did my best at the time and have to trust my editors did their work, too. : )

One way I try to keep learning is to read (and re-read) lots of other people's books. Right now I'm re-reading Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax series. I've always loved them, have read them multiple times. Now I'm going through them trying to pinpoint just what it is that has made them so special to me. What exactly she does to keep me coming back again, and again.

I haven't taken any McKee workshops. Anyone else?

Kenna said...

Judy - thanks for sharing your publishing journey. It's all about perseverence in this business. Maybe someday, when I've honed my craft, I'll get to join you among the ranks of the published. Until then, I'll remain a guppie - at least the water's warm!!

Kenna said...

I have listened to 'Story' on CD. It was very good, and helps me to see where I definitely need work!

I'd love to attend one of McKee's workshops someday, but that will have to wait for a more lucrative period of my life!

Judy Clemens said...

The guppies are a great place to find camaraderie and support, Kenna. I spent a few years with them and loved it.

Yes, perseverance is the key. Good luck with your writing!

nancy said...

Kenna---Don't worry about missing the McK workshop. You're *much* better off with the Guppies!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Judy, I hope you're not talking about TILL THE COWS COME HOME as the first book that doesn't stand up to rereading from the perspective of your ever-evolving craft. It was a WONDERFUL book, and it hasn't disappointed me, for one, on re-reading yet. :)

Judy Clemens said...

Aw,thanks, Liz. I appreciate it! Doesn't your book come out soon? And I can say I read it "way back when."