Okay, repeat after me ... “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Yes, that’s how the famous old saying goes. Old sayings still ring true generation after generation, because there’s an element of relevance or conviction to them that makes them still applicable today, despite their age and clichéd overuse. So ... how is this particular saying relevant for writers?
Writers Who Can’t Finish
For the beginning writer who’s not yet published, this saying could mean many different things. Let’s take a typical novice author who really wants to finish that first great American novel, but just can’t seem to get it done. For writers in this situation, ‘try, try again’ means ‘keep at it.’
Many writers will let the familiar lame excuses of ‘I don’t have time’ stop them cold and keep them from reaching their goal. Don’t let that happen to you! If you don’t have time to write, make time. Rearrange your schedule. Give up sleeping in, work later into the night after your kids have gone to bed, let your family know this is something you really want to do, and steal the time necessary to work on what’s really important to you. The key is what is really important to you. If finishing your novel is one of your top priorities, you will find the time to do it. If you decide you can’t possibly realign your priorities due to other commitments, maybe you really do have too much on your plate right now. A realistic approach might be to wait until some of those other obligations get taken care of. But the reality is, if you put it off too long, you will simply let other things that come along continue to take priority over your dream of finishing your novel, until that dream becomes a distant, faded, forgotten memory. Now, admit it. It’s really an avoidance technique more than a time-management problem that prevents you from finishing that novel.
For the writer who’s ‘stuck’ and can’t seem to move forward with a story, ‘try, try again’ means not banging your head against a blank computer screen night after night, but instead means ‘try something else that works.’ In this case, you have to step outside your own box of Crayons and find a way to bring something new into the picture. That may mean getting advice from a writing partner or a critique group. It may mean reading some ‘how-to’ books on plotting and revision. The thing is, you have to pinpoint why you’re stuck, and then not try the same old thing you already know isn’t working. Instead, try something different until you find a way that does work to help you finish your novel.
These same ‘I’m stuck’ excuses and fix-techniques apply equally to those authors who have completed previous novels but can’t seem to move forward with the next one. Each story presents its own unique set of problems with character motivation and plotline, but the smart writer will find ways to deal with it, even if it means skipping a problematic section of the novel to keep moving forward. That problem section does however need to be addressed at some point before the novel can really be considered finished. The key is to stick with it and do whatever is necessary to finish.
Writers Who Just Give Up
Now suppose you’re one of those writers who’s finished your novel but can’t seem to get it published. After all, getting published was why you wrote the darn thing in the first place, wasn’t it? Yet here you are, faced with two – count ‘em, two – rejections! Now you are a failure. Right? Wrong! You’re a failure only if you give up trying. Remember that good old phrase, ‘try, try again’? But let’s say you’ve queried five publishers. Even ten. Maybe even a hundred! And you still can’t get anyone to take a look at your work. Shouldn’t you be able to admit you’re a failure by then?
Well, the truth is, yes, you can stop trying at any time in this game and admit you’ve failed, and allow yourself permission to not achieve your goal of becoming a published author. But, before you do that, examine why you want to quit. Is it just too much work and bother having to submit your manuscript and then wait around? Have you seemingly wasted years of your life doing this and feel you need to move on and leave that particular dream behind, unfulfilled? Everyone can find some way to justify failure. Blame it on the economy, on stupid publishers who wouldn’t know a book from a boat, and so forth. But maybe, just maybe, it’s your own approach to seeking success that is the failure – not you. Perhaps you can’t fix yourself, but you can fix what you do and how you do it.
‘Try, try again,’ as stated before, does not mean that you have to do the same old thing the same old way to ensure you get the same old unsatisfactory result. Any serious writer will keep all rejection letters as a record of who not to approach again. Take your rejection letters out and look at them. Are they all the same kind of form letter saying something innocuous like, ‘Not for us,’ or ‘Not interested at this time?’ If you’ve got even one letter that says something individual, meant just for you, like, ‘The story concept was interesting, but the writing left much to be desired,’ there’s a clue, putting you way ahead of the game. Maybe your attempts to get published are not a failure, but a wakeup call to go back and revamp your novel. If you haven’t bothered to get honest opinions from a good writing partner or critique group, maybe that should be part of your ‘try, try again’ approach.
Writers Who Believe the Hype
You wanted all the fortune and fame that comes with being a bestselling author. You thought the life of a writer would be glamorous and sophisticated – no real work involved, just lounging around in your PJs and thinking up stories. And maybe an occasional invitation to appear on the David Letterman Show to tout your latest work, hobnobbing with other guest stars. Wow, what a gig!
Yes, great work – if you can get it. But believe it or not, the life of successful writers is not filled with glamour and parties and days on end spent staring out the window at the fantastic view offered by a beach house retreat. Writing is work – oftentimes really difficult work. And it can be lonely work – most of the time without anyone around to pat you on the back and say, ‘Good job, well done.’ Sometimes the attendant responsibilities of a successful writing career involve a lot of compulsory travel, appearances, interviews, and other promotional activities. Then there’s the pressure. Writers who’ve made it to the bestseller list still have to come up with that next blockbuster novel, and their fans will be watching to make sure they don’t turn out some carbon copy of the last one. Each story has to be unique, with characters different from the last, and new problems to solve. Even successful writers have to stay on top of their game, or somebody new will come along and eat their lunch.
The truth is, most ‘regular’ writers are not full-time writers. They hold down ‘day’ jobs to earn a living. They have families to take care of, mortgages to pay, and social obligations that don’t include champagne at the occasional black-tie dinner party. For most writers, their writing career is not glamorous and doesn’t even come close to paying the bills.
For those writers who’ve managed to get published and are looking at dismal sales numbers – or even no sales at all – the hype, the fantasy of being a published author can be a bitter pill to swallow. Many authors who find themselves looking at sporadic and laughable royalty payments simply want to throw in the towel. And that’s the absolute worst time to quit, give up, throw in the towel, and go home. Why? Because they’ve come this far, they’ve achieved their publishing dreams, so why give it all up? Yes, maybe all that working and waiting and hoping just doesn’t seem worth it. And yes, things didn’t turn out at all like they'd hoped. But real writers can’t quit. They love writing too much, even though it seems to have slapped them in the face.
The truth is, not every book is going to be a blockbuster. Why? Because not every story is the same. A bestseller will appeal to a wide audience and speak to each reader individually. A bestseller will gain the attention of the reading world, not always because it deserves to, but because the author worked hard, was lucky, met the right people at the right place at the right time, and didn’t give up. At any time along the way, the author – not the book, but the author – could have made a misstep ... could have written a shallow or uninteresting book, could have been lazy and decided not to go that extra mile to make people take notice of his book, or could have torpedoed any chance of success by being recalcitrant and impatient, thereby alienating the very people who might have helped make him a star in the literary world.
There’s no easy answer for the age-old questions many writers ask – “Why can’t I be successful? Why can’t my book be a bestseller? Why won’t readers buy my book?” But I can tell you for certain that the writer who quits tireless promotion efforts and gives up searching for new efforts that work doesn’t deserve to ask these questions. So, if your writing career is not what you’d like it to be, take a good hard look at what you’re doing or not doing, and ... ‘try, try again.’
Patricia Morrison, Penumbra Publishing