Managing Expectations

Posted: June 10, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

A woman posted a blog the other day, on one of the author support sites I frequent. Her profile states she is a professional counsellor. I don’t know, she may be; I won’t be seeking her counsel.

Her blog was titled something like, “Keeping It Real,” and may have featured a “Hang In There, Baby” image of a kitten dangling from a rope by its front claws, or something equally uplifting and supportive.

Only the post was anything but uplifting. She started out by repeating some of the many #amwriting tweets most of us have seen: “Keep putting yourself out there, you will get published eventually,” and the like. Tweets meant to give us encouragement as we slog through the query trenches and pitch contests, to keep us motivated when we’re feeling … well, rejected. A lot of those are accompanied by stories of authors who, a year ago got tons of rejections and lost all of the competitions they entered, but persevered and are now happily agented and/or published. These are nice. They let you know you’re not alone and not doomed.

And then the blogger said, “I’m all for the power of positive thinking. And I do hate to burst anyone’s bubble. But, sorry guys, they’re lying to you.  Statistically, you probably won’t be published.”


My face still stings from the blow. I mean, what was her point? Give up now before you embarrass yourself? Don’t be lulled into a sense of false hope? Go back to scrapbooking, you don’t need the headache? Remember, she posted this on the front page of a site formed for and dedicated to the success of writers seeking agents. The membership is exclusively for writers who have a finished, polished manuscript and who are actively seeking agent representation for traditional publishing. This isn’t a creative writing night class at the community college. Who did she think she was talking to?

Querying is an intensely personal and emotional experience for most people. But the people querying are not likely to be as fragile and naïve as other writers. First of all, they have elevated themselves above the vast majority of writers simply by having finished a whole novel. And if they are serious they will already have had a number of people read and give them feedback on their work. Second, if they are reading those motivational tweets, then thy have joined and engaged with the Twitter writing community, and will have seen lots of agents and writers talk about the realities of the querying process. Most people querying learn very quickly that it is usually a long journey that yields success only if one is willing to adapt along the way. But there is still a certain tradition of success for those people who learn the ropes.

So for people like that, what value is advice that says, “You should not expect to succeed because most people who try will fail?” What possible good could come from telling a writer to just “give yourself permission to dream” without having unrealistic expectations of success (those were her words)?

I posted a reply. I said quite a lot, actually, but I’ll only repeat some of what I said here:

Why tell people, “You’ll never be good enough”? You are not doing anybody any favors by putting them in a box and taping it shut.

You remind me of a single mother I once met who forbade her young daughter from ever watching Disney movies … because she didn’t want her daughter to ever believe her dreams might come true.

You want to talk statistics? Most people will never get in to a good college. Or any college. Is the solution to spare their feelings and let them know up front (you know, in high school) they should stop wasting their time and money on expensive textbooks and late-night study sessions because they “probably” won’t make it?

If you are correct, there will never be any new writers, ever. Or musicians, or performers or artists or master chefs….

I’m certainly not a cheerleader. I think a great deal of the writing I’ve read by aspiring authors is far from publishable. In fact, I think almost all of what I’ve read that was self-published should never have been published at all. You want a statistic? I think the number is 97% of all self-published e-books never sell 100 copies. Do you know why? I think it is primarily because these writers lacked persistence and a dedication to their craft. They (for the most part) eschewed any peer review and bowed out of the daunting effort to find an agent or publisher, and settled for the easy way. They knew their work wasn’t good enough to make it past the gatekeepers, but shoved their work out there anyway. Like those horrible contestants on American Idol who can’t sing a note but who tearfully insist Simon and the other judges must be idiots not to choose them. I could have self-published my own novel months ago — after a year of filtering it through critique groups and beta readers and getting it “just right.” But by pursuing a goal of finding an agent I have done two things: 1) I have left behind probably 85% of those statistical writers you mentioned who will never get published. Sure, my competition just got a lot more fierce, but that’s why I’m here — to learn by example. 2) I am getting valuable feedback from movers and shakers in the business, telling me where my efforts fail — and where they succeed. I am always fine-tuning my presentation, learning the no-no’s and tricks. I will learn — like every other single human who ever became a traditionally-published author — how to get my book published. Even Ghandi started out as just a regular schmo. We become what we strive for by striving. Never by settling.

I respect your efforts to spare the feelings of the people who might experience some disappointment on their path to authorship. But I think it is misguided. Particularly here, on this site, which is dedicated to helping people get published. But these people all know they will receive rejections. They are okay with it. And some of them will give up before they achieve their goals. But many of them will not. The whole point to living is to strive and fail, and learn from your failures and try again. That’s how birds learn to fly. That’s how leaders are made. That’s where progress comes from. Success NEVER came from “You probably won’t make it, so why bother?”

This post you’ve written is not advice. This is anti-advice. Let’s manage our expectations, not murder them, please.

If you’re a writer, I implore you – manage your expectations. That means recognize there is a lot of work involved in success but success only comes to those willing to work for it. If you are a querying writer you already know this. There will be rejections. There will be days you feel like your work is unworthy. But suck it up, realize it isn’t personal, and that agent’s tastes are subjective. You can improve your chances by learning those ropes and sticking with it. And if you don’t give up, you have as much chance as any accomplished novelist of learning your craft and finding an agent who loves your book.

Basically, hang in there, baby.

  1. bethaman80 says:

    a-MEN. Well-stated!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    Excellent response, John. Where would we be without our dreams? It seems to me that a professional counselor should acknowledge the positive power of having a dream/desire to be published, recognize that there can be some glitches along the way, offer tips on how to deal (in a positive manner) with such setbacks, and suggest ways to reinforce one’s convictions so we can move forward. Rejections don’t mean “the end.” They are indications that you may need to review, reconnoiter, and remap your strategy. A good counselor should be able to help one arrive at a mind set that is conducive to such remapping so that the intended destination can be attained. And maybe, in the course of such remapping, one may find a completely alternative route to get the message across, a message that may well change substantially during that process.

    I think you made some very good points in your response.


  3. […] Managing Expectations June 10, 2015 […]


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