At What Point, Do I Have to Stop Proving Myself?

This question has been nipping at the back of my heels since acquiring my agent, John Rudolph at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m considered a “newbie” in the literary world, but the question still begs: at what point do you get to skip the submissions, bypass the rejections and have publishing houses approach you with contracts?

My friend and author of Relic, Renee Collins’, hypothesis is that if you make the NYT Best Seller’s list twice, then you’re set. Is there a formula? Do the great fall?

I guess I feel like it’s a crapshoot. In my day job, I have direct control over the success. The more I work, the more successful we are. I also have tangible results within a few weeks of treatment. I know exactly what needs to happen next in order for people to walk out with a great smile and perfect bite. But in writing, you love your book, and stories; you think you have the next big thing. You might spend months or even years perfecting it. Then, all of the sudden you get a ton of rejections. All the work and all the time you’ve invested is for a book that no one will ever read.

At this point in my career, I’m comfortable with Extracted. It’s been accepted, but now I have to prove myself again for Prodigal. I’m not suggesting that we should be complacent or static, but some indication that I don’t have to prove myself would be nice. Now that I have an agent I feel like I really have to prove myself. Every time I send my co-author, Sherry, a chapter I get nervous. Will I disappoint her? Does Stephen King, still feel that pressure, or does he just write whatever he wants, knowing his publisher will automatically accept it?

Does anyone else ever feel like this? Do you ever feel like you’re always going to be questioning if you’re good enough to run with big dogs? Or, perhaps, not worthy?


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About tylerhjolley

I was born in the era of the Star Wars and the Indiana Jones sagas. I’ve been enamored with science fiction and adventure stories ever since. In order to support my hobby of writing I decided to pursue dentistry. I graduated from Nova Southeastern University School of Dental Medicine in 2002. I then completed a four year orthodontic and periodontic residency at the University of Pennsylvania. In June 2006, I opened a private practice, Jolley Smiles, in Grand Junction, Colorado. I now have a total of four offices located in Grand Junction, Fruita, Montrose and Delta. Snowboarding, mountain biking, road biking, fly fishing, bird hunting, camping, hiking, and backpacking are the things I enjoy doing with my family. I also enjoy lecturing internationally on temporary orthodontic implants. Some of my journal articles have also been published in the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics. However, my true passion has always been fiction writing. When life gets stressful I escapes to unseen worlds to find relaxation. My career has been the vehicle to let me write without worry. I find inspiration from most of my adolescent patients. I continue to dream up fun and thrilling books to this day.

22 thoughts on “At What Point, Do I Have to Stop Proving Myself?

  1. Interesting post. I think over time, that need to prove oneself is a good thing. It fuels the fire. I think I’d get rather slack and honestly bored, if everything I wrote was a sure thing. And I know from both my experience and those of my friends that being on submission is something that you crave in the long run. Especially if it’s been a long time since you’ve had something in the running. It’s part of the fun. It’s like the adrenaline rush. But I understand that every once in a while you just want validation that you’re good enough—no matter what.

    • That’s a great point, Katie. You’re right, your writing would probably suffer if everything was a sure thing. For me, the submission process is so nerve wracking that I’m not sure I’ll ever crave it.

  2. Tyler, I’ve been writing for many years. I am in the midlist and not ashamed of it. Publishers don’t run to offer me projects so I haven’t “arrived” in a big way. However, I’ve learned to be proud of my staying power and ability to weather publishing trends, agent changes, lines folding, and editors leaving me orphaned. No matter the inconvenient wrinkles, I’ve continued to sell books year after year. I’ve found a way to do the work that I love in a business that is incredibly fickle. And that’s extremely satisfying! I don’t question myself nearly as much as I used to. I’ve learned to trust my instincts– not because of particularly fat contracts or slots on a bestseller list–but because of a track record. It’s another kind of success. Of course, I could just be very optimistic. I’ve been accused of that before ;-). Good luck with Prodigal… you are totally worthy. – J

    • You raise a great point: I just need to be proud of the work I’ve submitted. The publishing world is so fickle that if your timing is off just a tiny bit you can completely miss a trend.

  3. I don’t think you ever have to stop proving yourself, and you shouldn’t. Even if you do reach Steven King or John Grisham heights where you know every word you write is going to get published, you should never feel like you don’t need to prove yourself. If you do, you get complacent and your work slips. Besides, publishers and editors aren’t your real target, your real target is your readers. They are your audience, and for them you have to prove yourself over and over with every single book. And I think that is how it should be.

    • Personally, I feel like I’ve “made it” every time someone tells me they enjoyed my book. Then I get knocked down a peg when I look at royalty statements… but I try not to let that bother me so much, because while getting a book into reader’s hands can be hard… if they enjoy it once they have it… then I’ve done my job well, and that is success no matter who you are.

  4. Oh, you have summed up my feelings to a tee. I constantly second guess myself and wonder if I’ll be considered “good enough.” And now with PODs out in the world, there is even more pressure to make the next book bigger and better. Can I do it? Will I do it? How do I do it? Why don’t I have an agent yet? Am I not good enough? <– all questions that run through my head when I wake up at 2am in cold sweats thinking about my current WIP.

    Then I think, proving myself is going to be an on going thing. Because it's not necessarily "me" I'm proving, but the book and it's relationship to it's target readers.

    At least that's what I tell myself when I'm staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, nauseous over what and how I should write next.

    ~Michelle
    BTW: you're awesome! And Extracted and Prodigal will be AWESOME! Trust me. I had a talk with my magic 8 ball. 🙂 ha-ha

    • Dude, I’m so glad it’s not just me who wakes up and wonder those same questions. It’s easy to put on a front and say you’re awesome, but when you really analyze yourself or the situation it can be daunting. I guess we just have to put out our best work and that’s all we can do.

  5. June makes a great point. Agents and publishers are evaluating you from a sales perspective, not a quality perspective. That’s what the readers do. One thing I like about being an indie author is that I can put something out there and let it find its own audience. I also feel that at this point in my career, I have the basics down, but there are always new aspects to craft and new writing techniques with every story. That’s what I focus on.

    • True, but how do they know you have the next big thing? It’s just such a crapshoot. Just look at the vampire craze, for example. Some not so awesome books were very popular just because their timing was correct. How many great books didn’t make the cut because they were too early? Idk, I think JK Rock is right, it’s a fickle writing world we live in.

      • Blockbusters are important if you’re treating books like produce. If the book doesn’t go big, it has to go home. But now that books are available in digital format, they don’t have to be gangbusters out of the gate. They can develop an audience over time. Unfortunately, traditional publishers and bookstores can’t give books the time they deserve.

      • Sorry, I need to expand a bit on my reply. When I say books are treated like produce, it means they only get a few weeks in the bookstore before they’re pulled to make room for something else. That’s a shame, but physical space is limited. And I don’t think agents and publishers know any better than the rest of us what will sell and what won’t. It gets to the point where you chase trends instead of making your own.

      • Write for yourself and your audience, not for a trend. That is the only way to truly write well… and maybe you will be the next trend setter… not a hanger on of a trend that has already passed. And maybe you won’t. But as much as we all want to be that next big NYT Best Seller… I am a firm believer that you should write because you love it, not because you think you can get rich at it… because it is rare and there are no guarantees in this business.

  6. Seems to me I remember Neil Gaiman saying once that the trouble with being a bigshot (my word, not his) is that all of a sudden nobody edits or second-guesses you, so the quality of a piece is entirely up to you. Personally, I’m happy to be second-guessed! As long as somebody’s willing to publish me, I’m happy.

  7. Tyler, you and I both know that in medicine, we do things that must look awfully repetitive to those outside. I have literally lost count of some procedures I perform. And yet, every single time I use a knife it’s different in subtle ways that are impossible to describe to others. That’s what keeps me fresh. Writing is much the same. Most people balk at writing a letter, never mind 80,000 words or more, and yet we do it day after day because we must as a means if expression. It’s our duty to ourselves to do that the very best way we can. But, just like some complex surgery, it’s hardly ever a comfortable ride and confidence is what carries us through, not complacency. Be the best that you can be. If you build it, they will come.

  8. Tyler, I question myself all the time. I always feel like somebody made a mistake deciding to take me on (but oh, so grateful for that mistake), and that I won’t be able to keep up with the demands of the industry. It’s good to hear that it’s a normal feeling. There was a speech Neil Gaiman made where he said when he became a published writer he felt like he was getting away with something he wasn’t supposed to be doing, and that at any moment someone was going to show up at his doorstep and tell him it was a big mistake and they’d have to take it all back. I love that speech, actually. Makes me feel more grounded. But in the long run, I hope the feeling subsides a bit and we all feel a little less like “newcomers” trying to prove ourselves.

  9. As to when you FEEL safe/worthy/like you’ve arrived, I can’t say. As for when agents and publishers start approaching you…I once heard a well known childrens book writer say that he knew the moment a book of his (not by any means his first) had sold 100,000 copies, because all of a sudden people started calling him, wanting to represent him, publish him, etc. He said that all of sudden the whole industry regarded his books differently–so I think that’s the number it takes to make it to the “big time.” But I never want them to stop editing my books–and when you make the big time they do stop editing…and that’s a bad thing.

  10. Well, I’m not author, although I’ve dabbled in writing. But I have read Extracted and I pretty much think that your book hits the mark. I wish I could give you an answer. As a reader and reviewer, your book was exactly what I like to read. I highly doubt you disappoint Sherry, and I’m sure she feels the same way when sending you something, yes? So, I’m not sure what the answer is to your question, but I know for me, you are a great writer/author and I will read whatever you put out there.

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