The Learning Curve

As with most things in life, the longer you stick around,  the more tricks you pick up.  I have found this to be especially true in the world of writing. 

My friends and fellow writers Jessica Day George (http://www.jessicadaygeorge.com/), Randall Wright, and I were having a conversation during the Provo Children’s Book Festival that centered on a comment someone had made to Jessica about her “overnight success.” I’d had a newspaper reporter say something similar a few years ago when I had four books released within five months of each other.

“Yeah, it’s overnight if you don’t count the six years I’ve been writing and submitting and going to conferences and workshops,” was Jessica’s comment.  Randall and I agreed. 

Much like Jessica, I had been studying my craft for a long time before I got recognized for it.  I’d actually had a number of things published, including an adult nonfiction book, a work-for-hire piece for the Klutz publishing group, magazine articles, and internet articles just to name a few.  I’d been working at writing for ten years before my books came out – even longer if you count the years I spent writing press releases, video scripts, advertising copy, and newsletters when I worked in PR and advertising.  But somehow, because a few things fell together at the same time, the reporter felt it was appropriate to refer to my success as “sudden.”

Writing has a learning curve to it, not just for the craft itself, but for business side as well.  Studying the markets takes time.  Finding the right publishers, the right editors at those publishers, at the right time, and with the right manuscript is as much a game of patience as it is knowledge.  Even then, it can sometimes be who you know, not what you know.  Spending the time (and the money) to attend workshops, conferences, and retreats is all part of the learning curve.  This is where writers meet each other, meet editors and agents, learn about what’s happening in the industry, and make those connections that can make a difference in a career.

Jessica talked about something similar, and then said the person in her conversation had added a sarcastic “Oh, so it’s not what you know, but who you know?”

Truthfully – yes.  That networking is as valuable as any other aspect of the conference.  Many editors will only accept submissions if they’ve met you at a conference.  But that by no means should indicate that studying the craft of writing isn’t every bit as important.  Children’s book editors are typically not interested in rhyming picture books with talking animals.  They don’t want another vampire or wizard book just because you think that vampires or wizards are the hot item.  The two elements, networking and knowledge, go hand-in-hand, and you don’t learn them by attending only one conference and proclaiming yourself a writer.  There is such a thing as paying your dues – and that usually comes in the form of a lot of rejection letters.

Many novice writers don’t have the stomach for rejection.  Sadly, a lot of good writers give up quickly because they take the rejection so personally.  When I first started writing, a wise mentor told me to save all my rejection letters.  “Create a ritual out of it,” she told me.  Her name is Cheryl Zach, if you’re interested. So I did.  I got a box and wrapped it in gold paper.  Then I used a calligraphy brush and painted the words “One Step Close” on the lid of the box.  I decorated it with ribbons and jewels.  Each time I got another rejection letter in the mail, I would put it in the box and I would say, “That’s one step closer to the dream.”  That ritual helped get me through some tough years, and kept me motivated.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is patience.  In the beginning, I would put a manuscript in the mail and then haunt my mailbox for the next three or four weeks, waiting for the acceptance letter, or the big check that I was certain was on it’s way.  I could hear my mailman pulling up from half a block away.  Now, I often forget I’ve sent something out and am surprised to get an email or a letter from the editor I sent it to.  I realized recently that I’d sent an article to Highlights magazine seven years ago, which they bought and promptly shelved, that I’ve never seen in print.  I remember sending it, remember writing it, remember getting the check, but had completely forgotten about the whole thing until I was in Connecticut at my ICL training and someone asked if I’d ever written for Highlights.

Of course there are always the exceptions to everything in this business.  There are the “overnight” success stories, the writers who will publish a book just like one that came out a few months ago, etc.  These exceptions are the unfortunate cause of many novice writers believing that they, too, can publish a book just like “Cat in the Hat” called “Dog on the Log” and become the next great thing in children’s literature.  Those writers don’t want to spend the time and effort on the learning curve, and so they send 300 copies of their first-draft manuscript to every publisher listed in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market Book.  As a result, more and more publishers will not take unsolicited manuscripts, or work from writers who have never been published before.

I’m glad I wasn’t an overnight success, that writing didn’t come “all of a sudden” for me.  I’ve enjoyed the time spent learning, and the people I’ve been able to meet.  The learning curve is an important, valuable part of this whole experience, and gave me experiences I wouldn’t trade.

Good writing!

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