Take This Advice for What it’s Worth by Deb Eve

Here’s what I’ve learned about people asking for publishing advice: as soon as you’ve sold a book (doesn’t even have to be OUT yet) everyone who’s writing a book (and as it turns out, EVERYONE is writing a book! Who knew?) wants to ask you for advice. I like to give advice. And I know from long, hard experience how incredibly frustrating the path to publication can be.

And here’s what I’ve learned about actually giving advice. An awful lot of aspiring writers don’t actually want advice. What many of them really want is for an established writer to read what they’ve written and then say that it’s good. Saying that it’s great and hand delivering it – with a glowing endorsement – to their agent or editor would be even better. I can certainly understand that. It’s what I would have wanted too, had I ever asked an established writer for advice when I was trying to break in (I certainly didn’t know any while I was living in Uganda . . . or Uzbekistan for that matter, and it just never occurred to me even as I toiled away in relative isolation once I returned to the States). But the truth of the matter is, getting a book published is a highly competitive undertaking. And if you’re not already famous or have a huge platform of your own, then the best thing you can do is write the absolute best book you can – and then be constantly willing to make it even better.

So the best advice I can give (if anyone really wants it) is to be open – even welcoming – of feedback. I don’t believe that we are born Hemmingways or Angelous (or Brysons or Lamotts or . . . I’ll let you fill in your own ideal writers). Even having a boatload of natural talent will only get you so far. I think what separates the writers who succeed from those who don’t is often a matter of how hard they are willing to work to make it better; what they take away from each and every rejection; and how many times they are willing to hear “no” and still keep going.

Having said that, I also believe that no one needs to take my advice – or any writing advice that’s given for that matter. Let’s face it, you can get some lousy advice. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve received was from my agent, the wonderful Laney Katz Becker, who told me to trust my instincts and only make the changes that feel right to me. (Good advice for writing as well as life.) But I do think it’s important to be willing to hear feedback, consider it with an open mind and then ask yourself if it might improve your work. Usually, you’ll know if it’s good advice for you.

I’ve gotten some other helpful tidbits of advice from agents over the years – agents who were rejecting me at the time. One scribbled in a corner of the rejection form letter, “I loved the first chapter but was not compelled to keep turning the pages after that.” And you better believe, I sat right down, and figured out what it was about my first chapter that was so compelling but was missing in the next and I did my best to remedy that before sending it out again. There was also something even more helpful in her note. “Keep at it!” she wrote. And I certainly did.

And then there was Fifi Oscard – who is no doubt, repping the most talented angels in heaven now. She once called to tell me she loved my “lovely book” and was sure I’d make it big one day. But, no, she would not be the one to help me get there. “Keep writing those wonderful letters to agents and publishers,” she told me. “Eventually, one of them will take you.” Which one??? I was dying to ask.

Maybe what these agents gave me was not so much advice as encouragement. But sometimes, that’s what we really need, isn’t it? And I think, more often than not, it’s probably what those aspiring authors are hoping for when they come to me for advice. (Well, that and my agent’s phone number!) So my advice is be welcoming of feedback but trust your instincts, keep working at it to make it better, and yes, you can do it!

10 Replies to “Take This Advice for What it’s Worth by Deb Eve”

  1. “I think what separates the writers who succeed from those who don’t is often a matter of how hard they are willing to work to make it better; what they take away from each and every rejection; and how many times they are willing to hear “no” and still keep going.”

    I think this is so true, Eve. Even great writers with a great story will hear “no” many, many times for arbitrary and mysterious reasons. Even stories we hear of “overnight successes” tend to gloss over just how long that “night” was, don’t you think?

  2. Eve, it’s true. So often we look for the “easy” way to do something before we settle down, crack our knuckles, and get to the dirty work. But it’s always much more satisfying the second way.

  3. If someone “helps” you to get published, will they also “help” to sell your book? Aha, there lies the real need! And, while everyone benefits from encouragement, it’s confidence in yourself and your writing that is required. May I state the obvious? You all have that in spades!

  4. Kristina, I long ago stopped believing in “overnight” success stories.
    I think even most overnight successes probably had years and years of “failure” before the sudden success.

    Tiffany, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed getting published the “easy” way – say, if someone had just handed it to me years ago. But yes, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that I’ve got now, knowing how damn hard I had to work for it and recognizing all the times I really could have given up (I mean, c’mon, I was writing, rewriting, submitting and getting rejected for this same book – well, numerous variations of it anyway – for a dozen years! It was just plain stubborness and insanity that I DIDN’T give up, right?, but knowing that I believed in my dream even when it seemed like no one (except maybe(?) St. John and my mother) believed in it too. Well, yeah, THAT feels especially good.

    Larramie, you are right about the need for confidence it your own writing. BUT that can be really, really hard to come by when you are getting years and years of rejections! And as for the help with selling our books, well, for that we have to rely on YOU and all the other wonderful and generous readers out there who love our books and then tell everyone they know about them! And bless you for that!

  5. What lovely rejections you got, Eve! I’m glad you kept at it.

    It’s so true that we have to pick and choose the advice we receive–and I think it’s also important to consider all of it (unless it’s to give up writing altogether!). When you hear the same piece of advice (the book is too slow, etc.) from more than one person, that’s definitely when you need to dive in again and see if you can do something about it.

  6. I always knew…ALWAYS. And others knew too…from your teachers to your professors…I can’t remember all the names, but they always told me , “your daughter is a very talented writer”. Remember Professor Moynahan?

    What I don’t remember is ever hearing you say, “oh mom I can’t do this!”..”I can’t figure this out!, or “I give up!” That was not and is not your style.

    So Eve, are you working in the second book??? I know I will love it… but then I love the way you write a grocery list.


  7. Wow, this really rang true! Even though I know all of this, it’s still a problem: Having written for many years (mainly technical and non-fiction), I still secretly hope, now that I’m attempting my first novel, that readers of a first draft will say, “It’s great!” But what I really need is for people to say, “That’s a good start…and here’s how to improve it dramatically.”

    Thank you for reminding me of the right attitude and the path to getting to where we want to go!

  8. Eve, you’re so right about the importance of encouragement. I think a good support system is one of the most crucial factors in finishing a novel. There are people who have written great books in spite of unsupportive families and friends, but I’ll bet they’re in the vast minority.

    I had some very nice rejections, too. As well as one or two that weren’t so terribly nice (but at least they were kind of funny).

  9. All my rejections thus far have been kind and some even helpful. I haven’t run into anyone yet who wouldn’t give me pointers or answer questions I had.

  10. I say the same thing to myself over and over again: a writer has to keep at it in order to become a published successful author.

    When I ask for feedback, from a writing teacher, co-writer, whoever, I’m usually asking, for what does not work, because that is the only way I can make it better.

    Rejections hurt, they do, but then they are the stepping stones to eventual acceptance.

    Great post.


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