Yesterday, I talked about how difficult it can be to distinguish between useful perseverance (you’ll eventually find the right person for your project if you just keep trying) and useless perseverance (you’ll never find anyone who’ll want this project, so you should move on to the next one.) Through experience, I have come up with five rules of thumb for determining whether something sucks or whether I just haven’t found the right match yet.
First, I put whatever it is away for a while before sending it anywhere, even to a friend for feedback. If it’s an article pitch, I might just set it aside for a weekend and look at it with fresh eyes on Monday. For a book manuscript, I might wait a month or more to let my attachment to it weaken a little so that I can be more objective when I look at it again. By giving myself some space, I’m less likely to have ego and dreams too attached to the project and can be more critical about its true value.
Second, I take it on a test drive. If I’m not confident I’ve got a perfect winner on my hands, I ask no more than two trusted colleagues to take a look. If I get a divergence of opinion, I sit on the project for a few more days and think about it. Then I go with my gut.
Third, I sample the field instead of doing a full-court press. For example, when I was looking for an agent to rep my recent non-fiction book proposal, I picked my top ten A-list, made sure they were all accepting new clients, and figured out if I knew someone who could give a referral/recommendation. My plan was to send a pitch to each of these agents, including the proposal for those agents who like to see it at the same time as the pitch (you can find this out by looking at their submission guidelines). (Fiction agents usually want some combination of a pitch letter, a synopsis and anywhere from the first five pages to the first three chapters of the manuscript.) If I had gotten ten no’s or the black hole of non-response, I would have reworked my pitch letter. If I had gotten some kind of consensus regarding my proposal (for example, “not different enough from what’s out there”), then I would have considered re-tweaking that before sending it out again. Fortunately, the first agent I talked to offered representation, in one of those “What are the odds?” scenarios.
Fourth, I invest a lot of effort in educating myself about the market. That helps me keep perspective. If everyone is saying the market for vampire novels is over-saturated, then the fact that my vampire novel isn’t selling probably has as much to do with that fact as with any weakness in my writing (not that I have a vampire novel. But if I did.) That might encourage me to keep persevering despite rejections. But if the market is desperate for historicals about the Scottish highlands, and I can’t get anyone to read past the first five pages of mine, then I should probably draw certain conclusions about that (not that I have a Scottish highlands novel. But if I did.)
Fifth, I focus on mastering my craft. There are lots of things I have to do as a writer – from writing pitch letters to building my platform – but all of this is nothing if I don’t master my craft. The more I learn about my craft, the more I realize where I went wrong in early novels that never sold, and I recognize that getting those novels published one day won’t be a matter of perseverance, but a matter of revising them according to what I know now about writing.
What have I missed? Please weigh in on how to persevere in a useful way in this crazy business.