If you shop in the Amazon bestseller list for Thriller and Mystery (like I do), you’ll see a number of Michael Wallace books there. Michael has several great books with the Amazon thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, but it hasn’t always been this way. Today he shares some of his journey with us.
I could wallpaper a room with rejection letters.
If I printed electronic rejections I could wallpaper two more rooms. Altogether, I have collected more than 1,500 rejection letters from magazines, publishers, and agents. In fact, I’m still collecting rejection letters, even though my indie novels have sold roughly 80,000 copies and I have paired my indie career with a more traditional contract through Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer thriller line. My book, The Righteous, has been ranked as high as #5 in the overall store on Amazon UK and as high as #20 in the US. Nevertheless, my agent recently shopped my World War II thriller and while I had some publisher interest, I also had editors give me those dreaded “I like this, but. . .” responses.
My ego would love to say that the publishing industry is infested with idiots, but the truth is that many (probably most) of these rejections were justified. I started submitting when I was still in high school, and by the time I’d finished college was already north of 200 rejections. The stuff I was writing then was dreck. I’m a slow learner, and I don’t think I wrote anything worthwhile until I was twenty-five and it would take several additional years before I could write at a consistently high level. Those fifteen hundred rejection letters hang around the neck of more than a hundred short stories and fifteen different novels.
It’s hard to say why I kept at it, even though my work faced indifference from the publishing industry. I knew that I could write, and when people tell me no, I’m stubborn enough to keep trying. During my frustrated periods I wondered why I was inflicting myself with so much pain. Maybe I should learn the piano instead. I may never play professionally, but if I put the same kind of effort into learning a musical instrument as into my writing, I could impress the pants off my family and friends.
Writing is not performance art; until you have success, nobody much cares.
It’s a hard business, and I’d never suggest that anyone voluntarily choose this path, but if you’re a writer like I am, you know one does not simply give it up. You keep working, you keep studying, and you keep submitting. In the old days, you submitted to agents and editors, and while this option continues, we’re lucky to be able to appeal directly to readers these days. This is how I got my break and I can tell you from personal experience that if the readers embrace your work, the editors and agents will come around as well.
Here is my advice.
Don’t dink around for five years with the same novel. Set daily word count goals and meet them. At 1,000 words a day, you’ll have the rough draft of a novel in 3-4 months. Give yourself two months to polish it to the best of your ability, then move on to the next project.
You can’t be a writer if you’re not also a reader. Find good stuff and figure out how they do it. That’s the most obvious way to study. The second is to read as many books on writing as you can get your hands on. I find that doing this while I’m in the middle of first draft work helps me see how to apply this advice to my own work.
(3) Keep perspective
You’re a writer, dammit. It doesn’t matter if the world scoffs, if every third person and their dog walker is working on a novel. You are going to keep writing because that is who you are, and that is what you do. In the early days our reach exceeds our grasp. We know what is good and we want it, but we don’t yet have the tools to produce at that level. The good news is that over time your reach grows.
If you’re a writer, you have to keep going. There is no other choice. Remember that a year from now you’ll be a year older than you are now. You’ll either have another novel or two under your belt or you will have finally got your paladin to level 80 on World of Warcraft. Which is more important to you?
Michael Wallace is the author of over a dozen thrillers and fantasy novels. His series of of suspense thrillers set in a polygamist enclave, The Righteous, is published by Thomas & Mercer and is available in print and as an ebook.