AWP 2014: Stoking the Fire When Success Eludes

Posted on 19 March 2014

Raise your hand if once upon a time you had a certain vision for your writing career – a vision that so far has not come true. The first novel published by a major press, the awards or reviews, the national book tour, or even getting an agent to simply respond…any of that sound familiar? And maybe, after some time and when viewed in the light of publishing reality, your vision started to sound a little unrealistic? Or maybe even impossible? If so, then this is the post for you.

This belated and penultimate AWP recap is near and dear to my heart because it surrounds a panel that included our own Teri. The session, “Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes,” is one a lot of writers can relate to. We all know how discouraging this business can be, so hearing the panelists’ struggles and tenacity was illuminating.

In addition to our own amazing Teri Carter, panelists included Joe Ponepinto (moderator), Kobbie Alamo, and Q Lindsey Barrett, all of whom discussed the hopes they had for their writing careers in the beginning, where they are now, and where they hope to be in the future:

On expectations, large and small: “I didn’t think I would an Oprah pick, but I did think I’d be published. That dream has not been realized.” –Kobbie. Her first book was rejected, her second got an agent but did not sell, and the third went through three rewrites in three years but ultimately did not sell. She’s now working on her fourth.

“I published my first story – it won a prize, actually – and I thought [my writing career] would take off. I didn’t know it would take more than four years to publish again.” –Teri

“I was naïve. I thought everyone loved books and reading books.” –Joe

On the power (and pitfalls) of ego: “My biggest strength as a writer and also my weakness is my ego. I really believe in my writing – and you have to.” –Joe

On the necessity of failure: “I realized it was a huge failure, but the book was not a waste of my time. I didn’t have my focus yet.” –Teri on her first book, which received negative feedback from a beta reader and caused her to not look at the project or write for an entire year. During that year, however, she found her tribe of writing friends online. (And the rest, for those of you reading this who know Teri, is writing-friendship history.)

On facing the competition: “Try rejecting things [as a journal editor] and saying it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough…and then go to your own work and think it is good enough.” –Q Lindsey, who sees scores of worthy manuscripts cross her desk as the assistant fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, but there’s only room to print five or six stories in each quarterly issue. Realizing 1) how competitive publishing is and 2) just how special a piece must be to get an acceptance can offer writers a new perspective on their own work.

On persistence and reality: “I thought my MFA was my ticket [to publication]. Maybe the magic ticket is persistence.” –Kobbie

“If you’re writing for validation, every rejection is going to be like pouring lemon juice in your cuts.” –Q Lindsey

“I have realized I may not make it as a writer, and it’s not because I’m not good enough.” –Kobbie

On creating and supporting a writing community: “Stay away from people who think writing is a tedious habit. Surround yourself with people who ask what you’re working on, not what you’ve published.” –Q Lindsey

“It’s 50/50 for me – I write half the time and support others in groups the rest of the time.” –Teri

Focus on the Process. “I worked in corporate sales, where they only care about results [instead of] process. I still want to publish, but now I’m in less of a hurry.” –Teri

On the possibility of self publishing: “I’m so grateful some of my earlier stuff is not published. So many people are in a rush to get published. Having that screening device is not always bad. –Q Lindsey

“I like the gatekeeper.” –Kobbie

“I’m holding out. –Teri

I have to say, for such a potentially bleak topic, these panelists handled the subject matter well. They were honest and didn’t sugarcoat any of their disappointments, but they also didn’t leave me nearly as depressed as I have when leaving other publishing panels hosted by agents, editors, or published authors. (Most of the panels I’ve attended at writing conferences and events have been wonderfully helpful, but I’d be lying if I said one or two didn’t make me want consider diving headfirst off a cliff.) I for one will be rooting for all of these writers. In the wise, optimistic words of Teri: I’m holding out.

What were your expectations then, and what are they now?

Photo: Vibrant Spirit

4 responses to AWP 2014: Stoking the Fire When Success Eludes

  • anna says:

    I’m so glad I read this. This is the panel discussion I wanted to hear. These are the things I want writers to fess up to– if we all told the truth about failure, it wouldn’t hurt quite as much. I wish I had been there in person.

  • Laura I am so happy to hear you found our panel encouraging. That was our goal — to talk about the reality of the current publishing market, and to offer some strategies for forging ahead and building a writing community to cradle each other through the tough process and celebrate those hard-won successes.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, thereby passing fire to your circle, your community.

    ~ Q Lindsey

  • Downith says:

    Thank you Laura. Wise and encouraging words from all. And yes to Teri and the writers’ friendship history.

  • Thanks Laura. We had so many people tell us later how much they appreciated the panel. AWP panels are usually about the people who’ve had the talent and luck (yes, luck) to make it in publishing. We wanted to acknowledge the other side of that reality, the side where most writers dwell. Were glad it was so well accepted.

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