Letter to a Discouraged Writer

by James Scott Bell

My man,manwriting

Here’s the thing. You got yourself good enough to get a publishing contract back in the “old days” when you needed to impress an agent, get repped, get shopped, and then sign on with a house. Your books came out with nice covers, some marketing, some placement. You did book signings and conference appearances. Three books I think it was, right?

So what happened? Sales weren’t enough to earn back the advance. And not enough to get another contract from the publishing house.

There’s an author support group for that. It’s called “Practically Everyone” and they meet at the bar.

I don’t know the exact percentage, but most fiction authors who ever lived never caught on in a big way. Many used to manage a “midlist career” which meant at least enough sales to keep on publishing, though not enough buy a yacht.

So you went through a dry period. Your agent shopped you but without success. So you parted ways. That was a tough time for you. You wondered if you’d ever get published again.

A couple of your colleagues, myself included, suggested you ought to look into self-publishing. That was four or five years ago. You said you didn’t have the desire to learn “all that stuff.” You just wanted to write.

Then you found another agent, a newer one, and he thought you ought to start over with a pen name. So you did. And he got you a contract. (See? You are still good enough!) Yes, it was a smaller house, so the advance and marketing were minimal. You got some good reviews for the new book, which was to be the start of a series.

But the book went nowhere. And the publisher decided not to bring out the next book. (To hear more stories like this, go to the next Practically Everyone meeting at the bar).

Then your agent got out of the business.

You told people, That’s it. I’m done. Goodbye, writing. No use. Never again.

Your colleagues gave you a pass the first time you expressed this. We all understood. But when you did it again, I decided to write you this letter.

Look, bud, are you a writer or aren’t you? I’m not talking about someone who has a contract. I’m talking about someone who has this yearning to tell stories because you’ve been caught up in storytelling dreams and you want to do that for other people.You long to move them, entertain them. Is that you? Then you’re a writer.

And as such, you’re subject to the slings and arrows of this crazy business. The question is, what are you going to do when you get a few arrows in the keister?

You can give up. Or you can go see Miracle Max. (You’re only mostly dead!) And when you can sit comfortably again, self-publish.

Sure, it takes effort to learn what to do. But no more effort than it took you to learn how to write a good scene.

I know, I know. You’ve heard about that massive “sea of content” out there. Yes, you’ll be starting out as a minnow. But at least you’ll be alive and swimming. The beach, meanwhile, is covered with rotting kelp and flies and the bones of writers who gave up.

When you self publish, you’ll instantly be better off than you are now. Like the old prospector said, “A handful of somethin’ is better than a cartload of nothin’.”

It’s within your power to make it happen. Think about that. You’re not at the mercy of a corporation or committee, or the shrinking shelf space in bookstores. You are your own captain, your own boss.

You say you’re not a particularly fast writer. Well, fine, here’s my advice: write to a quota and stick to it. Find out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Then up that by 10%. You have to have extend yourself a little. Even the lowly oyster needs a bit of grit to make a pearl.

Do you want to be outclassed by an oyster?

Get out of your shell, man. Start by putting out short stories and novellas. Get them out there and in the Kindle Select program. Use the free promotion to move units. Set up an email list with a service like MailChimp or Vertical Response, and make it easy for readers to sign up on your website. Put a sign-up link in the back of your books.

This is your foundation. Meanwhile, work on a full-length novel. Continue your series if you like. Or write that book that’s been tugging at your heart. Keep at it—quota, steady pace. The pages mount up like magic.

You will make some money. How much? It depends. The formula is quality + production + time. Do your best every time out. Keep on doing it.

For the rest of your life.

That’s what I said. Because you’re a writer.

Am I right?

You’re bloody well right I’m right.

So write! You’ve come too far to give it all up now.

Your pal,

P. S. You still owe me that ten spot, but if you write a thousand words tomorrow, we’ll call it even. Deal?

41 thoughts on “Letter to a Discouraged Writer

  1. This post came at a great time for me because I’ve been doubting whether I should keep on writing, mainly because I’m not good at promotion, and don’t like it at all, at all, at all. That said, I’ve been working on an outline for the next novel in the series, but not as energetically as usual.

    Thanks to you, I will keep on writing because I have stories I want to tell, and the writing itself brings me great joy, especially when I’m in the zone and the magic takes over.

  2. Yes. Back from vacation, and virtually no sales KDP select. Your post cast a pinpoint of light as darkness closes in, Jim. I will persevere, keep on writing … but for me go I…:)

  3. Funny, I was going through my online writing folders yesterday trying to figure out how to re-organize my massive amount of writing related files. While doing so I came across several notes to myself of advice I’d collected from you over the years–including the Nifty 350 and what you mention above–about adding 10% to what you think you can do in a week.

    Sometimes it seems impossible to produce a volume of work. Then I just remind myself of the above and it helps me to keep chipping away. Some days I don’t clear much more than 100 words a day, but every bit is a step forward.

  4. I’m with you up to the KDP Select. All eggs in one basket isn’t a good thing. You never know where a reader will find you. And competition in the marketplace is a good thing. Author friend of mine crossed over to Select to take advantage of Kindle Unlimited. She made about $3. Yes, it takes longer to get traction at the other sites, but you’re not stuck at the mercy of Amazon when they decide to change the rules.

    • Terry, my advice about Select is for when you are getting started, and with short form work. The whole idea is to get eyeballs on your pages, and start to gather some readers.

      Then, when you get to novels, you can make a decision about going Select up front, or “going wide.” There are arguments both ways, and both have relative merits.

  5. Jim,

    Well said! Not giving up, however long it takes, that’s a truth for all writers who continue to write.

    My first three novels will remain in the proverbial trunk, but led to me starting on the path of craft. My fourth, the first I outlined, didn’t fly, but taught me a lot. Now I writing the fifth draft of my fifth novel, after doing the very challenging “voice edit” fourth draft, working with a superb developmental editor. She has made all the difference. A shift in perception hit me yesterday. The novel I’ve been working on is now a book that will be published in a few months, my first published book.

    “Never give up. Never surrender.” Write on, friend.

  6. Extremely helpful and to the point, also for a self-publishing author being a bit more than a year in the self-publishing business. Yes, let’s keep on writing!
    Thank you so much, Jim!

    • Victoria, when I was a college writing hopeful I wrote a fan letter to Darryl Ponicsan, author of The Last Detail. He wrote a nice letter back telling me to be prepared “for an apprenticeship of years.”

      Same here. Steady production over time does it. There are very few home runs out of the box. Write on!

      • Jim, thank you very much for answering!
        I love the prospect of being an apprentice in writing forever. It would feel awful to have learned everything about it someday. Fortunately, there is no danger of this coming. 😉

        • And yes, the same applies to publishing. Because I think that revision, self- and professional edits, improving, coordinating cover design, self-publishing and marketing belongs to the whole book and story, which is a “baby” of an author. I believe, that even a traditional author is not quite indifferent to these “non-writing” aspects of his books. The frustration of your friend about his books not doing well, only confirms it. So, we should always learn both writing craft and the business aspects of it. If done whole-heatedly and without hurry, they can become truly enjoyable and fun.

  7. I have a friend I am tempted to email this to, but I won’t. He’s so talented and had some pretty good early success but then hit a bad trough. I tried for years to encourage him to do more to invest in his career but he “just wants to write.” Well, tough noogies. So do all of us, at heart. But alas, those days went out with the IBM Selectric.

    Put on your big boy pants and get to work. Which is what I need to do now myself.

    Thanks for the smile and lift on this awful news day, by the way. Stay safe out there, everyone.

    • “Tough noogies.” Simple advice. Much like when Nick Cage tells Cher he loves her in Moonstruck, and she slaps him and says, “Get over it!”

      And yes, a sober time here in our land. Prayers for the victims and their families, and wisdom for leaders and law enforcement.

  8. Thanks for the letter of encouragement, Jim.

    I’m enjoying Romeo’s Way. I loved the theology of the Force of Habit series, the law of the Ty Buchanan series, and now the philosophy of the Mike Romeo series. Someone’s quite the deep thinker. I decided yesterday, that’s what sets your books apart.

    I’ve known some wise elderly men, who’ve always told me (when I asked them how they were doing), “I’m still alive and kicking.”

    I’ll keep on kicking in the writing arena.


  9. Thanks for the tough love today. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say, this felt like “me” in so many aspects (other than the pen name, it IS my story… to a tee… including the emotional aspect of pimping our work on social media).

    I love PJ’s reference to “putting on your big boy pants.” They still fit, by the way.

    I think the emphasis, as you say, is on “getting back out there.” With only a few exceptions, the really exciting upside of self-publishing is for a title to catch on via word-of-mouth, which is almost totally qualitative in nature. The really big home run stories are victories of quality storytelling, rather than social media consequences. Sure, there are the bare minimums involved in that regard (almost identical, by the way, to what “traditional” publishers are asking of us these days), but the marketing through social media has evolved and has largely run it’s obvious course, it is saturated, much like classified ads used to be the way for a tradesman to sell her/his services. Not any more.

    So it’s a bit of a lottery these days. Only in our case, the better you are, the more tickets you get and the greater your chances. This observation — it’s more about your work than it is your social media skill… other than list development, which remains effective as the means of getting that coveted word-of-mouth — is the great compensating truth for those of us who view it like knocking on doors selling floor tile.

    It’s always been about quality storytelling. Still is. And with all the volume out there, it’s more true than ever… and in some ways, it’s easier than ever to stand out. So the question is: am I still good enough? Rather than: can I stand to send out another self-serving tweet?

    Thanks again for this.

    • Larry,
      For all of us who secretly ask ourselves if we are good enough, I would add, “Am I content with the joy and satisfaction I get from the art of self-expression through writing?” When I think of the best moments I’ve experienced in my quest to see my name in print, it was not from the rare moments when all eyes were on me—but in the quiet of night, when I finished a scene so personally fulfilling it brought tears to my eyes. Because I am a writer. And my soul is refreshed in the process. No number of followers, friends, and fans combined can satisfy a true writer’s soul. If we find ourselves mercilessly chasing the elusive social media beast rather than enjoying the sweet taste of beautiful words on fresh pages, we are no longer writers, but slaves to a master whose chief end is to rob us of the individual gifts we’ve been given.

  10. I don’t know if this post is more like the north and south poles of a magnet, or the positive and negative ends of a battery, but it does fuel the toy.

  11. Jim, Late reading your post because of…well, life. But you’re right. The majority of us aren’t going to be Tom Clancy or J. K. Rowling, but if we really want to write, if it’s something we can’t imagine ourselves giving up, we’ll persevere and find a way.

    That way may be via self-publication for some, traditional contracts for others. But we’ll keep writing. Thanks for what one commenter has called “tough love.” It’s often needed, rarely given. Appreciate it.

  12. My problem is not putting in the time, learning everything I can, and being patient. My problem is feeling guilty about it. Writing ends up being a very selfish pursuit if you don’t sell books. The time writing books is time that could be spent with friends, family, and church-related activities. If you sell books, the time seems more justified. If you don’t, writing books becomes relegated to a hobby that excludes the rest of the world.

    When you work full-time, there isn’t that much time left. Do I spend it building and maintaining relationships or writing for God’s kingdom? I write Christian fantasy with a redemptive message for young adults. I’m ready to start on the fifth book in the Seventh Dimension Series, but if I do that, marketing gets pushed aside. That means basically no sales.

    I wish I didn’t feel guilty wanting to pursue my dreams, but at sixty, I feel like it’s now or never. After putting an ex through medical school and adopting and raising two internationally adopted daughters as a single mother, you wouldn’t think I would struggle with this, but if God really wanted me to write, wouldn’t He help me to at least cover the costs of book editing and book covers? It’s important to me that I’m in God’s will with my writing, but if I don’t sell books, how do I know? Not that you have the answer, but surely I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    By the way, I met you at one of the writer’s conferences that Jerry Jenkins hosted–a former court reporter, if you remember me.

    • Ah, Lorilyn, I hear you. But we writers are indeed odd folk, and there is a bit of what Peter Straub once said: “Every writer must acknowledge and be able to handle the unalterable fact that he has, in effect, given himself a life sentence in solitary confinement.”

      But of course we have family, friends, church, etc. But they also need to know that we are writers, and allow for that.

      Don’t equate “time” with “guilt.” That’s not the issue. The issue is you producing what you can, when you can.

      And you well know that one “never knows” who is going to get the message of your series. Someone is out there who will. That may be the reward.

      Keep up some easy marketing (e.g., deal newsletters, like BookGorilla), and perhaps do some short form work to support the series. Have someone look at your website to make sure it’s easily navigable and gets visitors to the series books quickly with a single click.

      I think you’re a writer.

    • You hit the nail on the head, Lorilyn. That’s exactly how I feel, having to work full time and try to maintain relationships. It often feels like a lose-lose situation.

  13. Another person here who needed this encouragement right now. First novel self-published in March has not done well. I thought that the timely topic would be a selling point. I thought that having it professionally edited would give it a chance. I thought that my launch team would come through for me. I didn’t think a family crisis would happen just as I was gaining momentum on marketing. Plans fail, but the mission to write must not. I will get back to that second book I have neglected and push forward. Thanks so much for sharing with all of us who need a wake-up pinch.

  14. This >>>My problem is not putting in the time, learning everything I can, and being patient. My problem is feeling guilty about it. Writing ends up being a very selfish pursuit if you don’t sell books.>>>>

    I can relate to this feeling big time. Even though I am so blessed to have an amazing, supportive husband who keeps telling me; “who cares how many books you sell, this is something you’re good at, you love to do, you enjoy, do it for you first, and there’s no room for guilt when it’s something that gives you and others who will enjoy it pleasure.”

    He’s not a writer, just someone who believes we are here for a short time and you may as well do what you really love and want to do.

    Thank you for this blog post, so many GREAT points, and it’s so good to read that I’m not alone in some of the things discussed in this thread.

    We are a unique bunch, each with our own way of tackling this passion of ours, but we are united in the struggle.


  15. I never consider being a writer a struggle. It is like breathing, something I have to do, whether it’s a short blog, a novel, a book probably no one will ever see, journal entries… and the occasional paid piece. For me, the success comes in letting these stories come into existence, not the size of my bank account. And as I tell my children, someday you can show these to your children so they know their grandfather was. Published or self-published need not matter – for the tomes themselves speak volumes that I was here and while I was, I wrote about that adventure called life.

  16. I find myself stuck with a thought:
    Is it acceptable to put out a collection, novelette or novel after revising the heck out of it, or is it absolutely necessary to let an editor have a whack (or three) at it first? I have seen so many works that are… what’s the word?… horrendous, yet are available and show sales. I have been told my writings are good, but I don’t want my name associated with substandard work.
    Thanks for this letter, James! Even if it’s not to me, it still is, you know?
    — John T. M. Herres

    • John, I use beta readers first, then a copy editor/proofreader.

      I’d advise you to at least have some beta readers take a look (free). Some other eyes is always a help. If more than one reports an issue, then look into it.

      We all hate typos, so a good proofread is a good investment.

      Good luck!

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