Persisting in the Writing Life: A Guest Post by Laurie Morrison
2018 is an exciting year for me. My debut novel, Every Shiny Thing, which I co-wrote with Cordelia Jensen, comes out in April, and I’ll be working on edits for my solo debut, Up for Air, which is due out in 2019. Because I have two contracted books in the works, kind friends and family members keep asking me when my “first book” comes out, and what’s going on with my “second book.” Even the book jacket for Every Shiny Thing says, “This is Laurie Morrison’s first novel.”
And, yes. It will be my first published novel. But Every Shiny Thing is not the first novel I wrote, and Up for Air isn’t the second. I completed four other manuscripts before Every Shiny Thing. I signed with my agent for my second completed novel, but that ultimately didn’t sell and neither did the next two books we sent on submission. Every Shiny Thing was the fourth book I had on sub.
I know there are some people who achieve their publishing dreams more quickly than I did, but I don’t think my story is that unusual. For many of us, the path to publication is a long one that requires a whole lot of perseverance. And as I look back at the journey that brought me to 2018, I have some thoughts about persisting in the writing life. Here are my top five tips!
1.) Persisting doesn’t mean sticking with a manuscript that isn’t working.
In addition to the manuscripts I’ve completed, I have almost as many that I stopped 50 or 100 pages in. Some of those I’ve gone back to later, some I haven’t. Writing a book isn’t easy, so you have to muddle through hard writing days, but sometimes there are projects that just aren’t working for you…or just aren’t working yet. In those cases, take a step back, get some feedback to give you some perspective, and know that setting aside a project isn’t a failure and it doesn’t have to be forever. Sometimes you need to figure out what isn’t the right thing to write en route to figuring out what is. You may return to the manuscript with a clearer vision…or letting it go may give you the space to begin working on something really special.
2.) Celebrate every accomplishment and take every compliment to heart.
If you’re serious about pursuing publication, there are going to be a lot of hard moments that you’ll have to keep bouncing back from. You’re pouring your heart onto the page, so it hurts when an agent or editor doesn’t connect with your work, or when a critique partner points out that you haven’t quite nailed the ending yet, or when a reviewer isn’t a fan. And unfortunately, the negative stuff sticks in a way the positive stuff just doesn’t. That’s why it’s so important to try to give positive feedback and achievements as much power as the discouraging bits take on.
Finish a draft? Sign with an agent? Receive a complimentary email from a critique partner about your newest revision, or even a pass from an editor or agent who says lovely things about your writing? Do something to honor these great things, such as treating yourself to a celebratory chocolate croissant or printing out the positive phrases and tacking them up on a bulletin board you can look at when you’re feeling down. Take them to heart.
3.) Use a proven standardized-test-taking strategy!
Okay, this one sounds weird. Let me explain. Back in 2015, when it became clear that the second novel I had on submission to editors probably wasn’t going to sell, I thought about quitting writing or at least giving up on the dream of writing for publication. I was spending so much time writing that I could have been spending sleeping or hanging out with friends or my husband, and I started to think that maybe the sacrifice wasn’t worth it.
So I took some sorely needed time off…and then I looked back at emails from my agent and my MFA advisors that were full of incredible enthusiasm for my work, and I re-read the passes that I’d received from editors. I noticed how many of those passes complimented my writing and asked to see my next project, even though the current one wasn’t a fit. I was getting really, really close, I realized.
From then on, I kept thinking about something I’d learned when I was preparing to take the SATs as a teen: if you sink enough time into any given question, you’re sabotaging yourself if you move past it without answering. I decided I couldn’t give up on my dream after I’d put in so much time and effort and gotten so close. It would be like spending precious minutes on a high-stakes test question only to leave it blank.
So I’d suggest thinking about all the things you’ve done in honor of your writing dream: pursuing an MFA or taking classes or workshops, getting up at 5 am to write before work, staying up an extra hour at night to get a few more pages written. If you’ve dedicated time and effort, you owe it to yourself to keep going even when things are hard.
4.) Learn from the feedback you get on projects that don’t pan out, but follow your gut and your joy instead of writing for the market since the market will keep changing.
“Don’t write for the market.” That’s something people say all the time. But after I’d had two novels on submission that hadn’t sold, I thought it made sense to pay attention to the reasons editors had given for passing on my work and try to write something more marketable.
Most often, editors had said my books didn’t have big enough hooks to stand out. A few had commented that my first book on sub, a young adult novel, would have been more marketable if the romance element had been more prominent. So I tried to write a YA novel with a clear hook that was, at its core, a romance.
Aaand that one didn’t sell, either. And look, I really like that book. It was extremely fun to write, I think the main character is pretty awesome, and it garnered some editor interest but never made it through all the way to an offer. But to be honest, as fun as it was, it didn’t mean as much to me, deep in my heart, as Every Shiny Thing or Up for Air do.
The ironic thing is, I didn’t really think Every Shiny Thing or Up for Air would be that marketable. I wrote them because they let me explore ideas that really matter to me and because I was passionate about getting to know the characters and telling their stories. I didn’t think they had huge, easy-to-explain hooks, and I thought Up for Air might be categorized as too mature for middle grade. And yet those are the books that have sold.
So go with your gut and write what you care about. You can’t predict the market, and it’s easier to push through the murky middle of a draft if you’re writing a book you desperately want to see out in the world, whether you think that’s likely to happen or not.
5.) Don’t be afraid to recycle your favorite elements of shelved projects.
Shelving a manuscript, whether it’s because you don’t get an offer of representation for it or it doesn’t sell on sub or you just can’t figure out the second half of the plot, doesn’t have to mean giving up on every part of it. If you love a secondary character or a setting or a certain theme, there’s no reason you can’t use it in another book.
Up for Air is actually sort of a spin-off from my first book on sub; it’s set in the same world and stars a secondary character I couldn’t stop thinking about. And my current WIP explores an element that I really loved in my third book on sub but with a completely different character and in a completely different way. If there’s an aspect of a story that you love, don’t be afraid to revive it in a new way.
Laurie Morrison is a middle school English teacher and the author of two forthcoming novels for older middle grade readers — Every Shiny Thing, co-authored with Cordelia Jensen, which launches on April 17, 2018, and Up for Air, to be published in 2019. She graduated from the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in summer 2012.