First of all, I know I’m a jerk for bringing this up. Because those of you who’ve said, “it only takes one yes” or offered other cheerful missives to frustrated writers have meant well. You were looking to comfort, encourage, keep literary dreams alive. And this post is essentially saying, “screw your platitudes,” which isn’t very nice.
To be clear, I need affirmation as much as the next person. The writer ego is a delicate thing, and a single wrong word can leave an indelible bruise. There are days I have faith that my writing will find an audience and I’ll attain some level of success. There are also days I question myself and my work and wonder if wanting to be a career novelist is akin to wanting to be a professional lottery winner (in my lower moments, I also wonder which has better odds). Show me a writer with zero insecurity and I’ll show you a liar. A writer with zero anxiety? Must be a robot.
So yeah, I need to be coddled within the folds of optimism’s bosom as much as anyone. A well-placed “it’s going to happen” can be the difference between utter despair and the extra surge I need to return to writing.
But I’ve never been able to stomach it when someone says, “it only takes one” (with or without the “yes” after it).
Because 99% of the time, it’s a lie.
I started hearing it most often while querying. As rejection after rejection piled up, it was a favorite phrase among writers I know. No matter how many agents might say no, it only takes one “yes” to get representation, right?
A massive number of agencies have interns who go through their slush, so first you need the “yes” of that intern (who might be a college kid or younger—I was going through an agent’s slush pile in high school) before your manuscript is even seen by the intended recipient. Other agencies share work and make joint decisions on what they request and/or who sign as clients.
But fine, plenty of agents get to take on new writers autonomously. Sometimes a single “yes” is all you need to get rep.
The “it only takes one” mindset extends further than representation, though, into the world of book deals, and this is where it becomes an especially dangerous line of magical thinking.
If you’re on submission and fortunate enough to find an editor who loves your book, that is the first in a long line of green lights required before publication. For bigger publishers, you’ll need to run the gauntlet of the acquisitions board, which can consist of other editors as well as members from Publicity, Marketing, Sales, Subsidiary Rights and other departments. That’s a lot more than one “yes” it’ll take before you’ll see a publishing contract. True, the process is less intensive at smaller publishers, but even if top decisions are made by one person, you can bet they’ll get additional reads on the material before an offer goes out.
Let’s say you surmount all of those hurdles, whether you follow a traditional route or self-publish. Every person who considers your book has to say “yes” before they purchase it. They must say another form of “yes” before they give it a positive review or recommend it to others.
I hope you now see why I loathe the false wisdom of “it only takes one.”
I don’t want writers to be emotionally crippled by the brutal odds they face (“too late,” some might be saying after reading this far). But nor should they be blind to them.
I get it, writers are dreamers. Sometimes we need to put our fingers in our ears and go, “lalalalala” and believe the life of a bestselling author is on our horizon. But come on, let’s be real: that’s not going to happen for most of us. Yet at the same time, we need at least a sliver of hope that it’s a possibility.
Rock, meet hard place.
So what’s the solution when trying to offer support to writers? I’m glad you asked (and if you didn’t, I’m glad I pretended you asked, so I could create this list)…
How To Deal With Frustrated Writers
- Stop saying, “it only takes one yes.” (Duh.)
- Praise what you know. Don’t say “you’re a great writer” if you haven’t read their work. If you have, by all means talk up what you liked (and be specific!). If you haven’t, emphasize positive traits you can speak to, like their dedication at making it this far and having written this much. You can never give us too many props for our creativity.
- If you’re going to share stories of others’ success, I personally find ones about late bloomers more comforting. Writers need boatloads of tenacity, so it’s good to remind them that hard work can pay off, but it sometimes takes years in this business. Avoid any tales of breakout writers in their twenties (and especially in their teens, good lord) and six- or seven-figure deals for debut novelists (realistically, most first-time authors will be lucky to get a five-figure deal).
- Listen. Sometimes writers need to do nothing more than vent, so hear out our petty grievances about authors who are further along than us and our not-so-petty worries about whether our voice will rise above countless others and find a readership. Acknowledge the very real emotions behind what we say, even if we’re doing little more than whining.
- Show your faith in the person. Remind them of their other accomplishments, in the writing world (“You got an agent! You know how tough that is to do?”) or beyond it (“You did X/Y/Z in your career!”). Recalling past success is a good way to keep our minds from dwelling on failure, real, imagined, or potentially impending.
- Be gentle with your reality checks (you know, unlike this post). Use qualifiers like “but” very carefully. Instead of, “You’re a talented writer, but very few make it big in publishing” try “It’s a tough industry, but you’ve got the talent, you just need to keep going and be patient.”
- Some platitudes are okay once in a while, but if you want to go beyond cheerleading, give their inner muse a nudge. Share articles on creativity with your frustrated writer of choice, or something related to their non-writing interests which you know they’ll find compelling.
- If you can’t comfort or inspire, entertain. Hell, sometimes a cute animal video will be enough to cheer us up and distract us from the winter of our literary discontent.
- Remember all writers are crazy (to varying degrees). And exceptionally moody. Sometimes, no matter what you say or do to make us feel better, you won’t get it right. Rest assured, it doesn’t mean we’re not grateful for the support; we’re just busy doing time in our own private writer hell, which can manifest itself as being a pain in the ass. It’s not personal. We appreciate the effort, so please don’t give up on us.