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How to Quit Writing and End up on the Bestseller Lists
By Shirley Jump
The Art of Perseverance or How to Quit Writing and End up on the Bestseller Lists
Many years ago, I spoke at a writer’s group in Pennsylvania. I was a little daunted. It was the biggest group I’d ever spoken to, and many of the writers there had credentials I could only dream of having. But as I told my story–my journey as a writer–the room got silent. Why? Because everyone in that room, published or not, could relate to the tale I told.
I spoke about quitting, about giving up your dream and throwing it all away in a fit of frustration. I had done that myself, in June of 2001.
Yet by November of 2006 I had my name on the New York Times list, the USA Today list, and was working for two publishers.
Five years from quitting to lists—not a lot of time, but, oh my how things have changed.
Everywhere I go, someone I meet can relate to giving up on a dream. We’ve all had those moments where our dream—whatever it may be—seems unattainable. You work and work, hoping to catch a break and achieve your goals and all you get is slammed doors and a broken heart.
So many of us give up then. I did it. I had written ten romance manuscripts in eight years and been rejected all over New York City. I thought I had a sale on the table in the spring of 2001, but at the last second, it fell through. My agent at the time refused to send my book to Silhouette, saying it would make her look bad (so I sent the book in myself in May). The agent even suggested I give up writing fiction.
That was the last straw for me. If my own agent didn’t believe I could do it, and clearly none of the publishers I’d sent my books to thought I was good enough to be published, then surely I wasn’t. At that time, I had my second non-fiction book coming out in September, I had more than 2000 articles in national publications published under my name, but none of it mattered anymore. My dream, ever since I was old enough to read, had been to write fiction.
Despite years of work and hundreds of thousands of written words, that dream wasn’t coming true.
I had had enough. Enough rejection. Enough dashed hopes.
The final rejection letter from my then-agent hit me hard. Very hard. At the same time, I found out that Silhouette had lost my manuscript in the myriad of submissions they receive. I took it all as a sign of bad karma and figured I wasn’t meant to write fiction.
That day, June 23, 2001, I threw everything out. Took the how-to books off the shelves, tossed the manuscripts, wiped the hard drive clean and threw out the disks. I packaged my entire writing life into three Hefty garbage bags, then sat down in my office and had myself a damned fine pity party.
Because I had finally given up on myself.
That day, my husband at the time came in and found me. He had not been super supportive of my writing dream before then, but at least on that day, he encouraged me to put everything back, told me I’d someday sell a novel, and tried to get me to write again. But I wouldn’t. In fact, I couldn’t. The spark had gone for me and I figured I was fighting a losing battle anyway.
I spent a good week feeling really miserable. I got caught up on “Montel Williams” and “ER” re-runs and didn’t write a single word.
Then, the following Saturday, a package arrived in the mail. A big package. Priority mail. Clearly, it was the manuscript I’d sent to Silhouette. Since the whole thing had come back, I chalked it up as a rejection and tossed it in the trash unread. My theory (based on hundreds of rejections) was always that they send you a letter to reject you; call if they want to buy.
But I couldn’t not know, so I fished the package out of the trash and started to read the enclosed letter from the senior editor of Silhouette Romance. “Dear Shirley,” it began, “I love this book and would be interested in buying it if you revised…”
I was astounded. The door I had thought was forever closed to me had suddenly opened an inch. Two weeks later, I’d signed with a new agent. Three months later, I sent the revised book in…and just before Christmas of 2001, my new agent called with the news I’d waited all my life to hear.
My book had sold.
The end result of that story, THE VIRGIN’S PROPOSAL, was in bookstores in January 2003 and went on to win the Booksellers’ Best Award, which seemed like poetic justice. As of today, I’ve published more than 60 books in 24 countries. It amazes me every time I see one of my books. I feel a sense of pride and more than a little disbelief at *my* name on the cover. My signature inside. My words, proudly encased in a gorgeous cover.
I did it. And boy, did it feel good.
Remember when you were a little kid and learning to ride a bike without training wheels? It was a scary time, wasn’t it? You could fall, break your head open (as your mother often told you, though I’ve never seen a head broken open), or worse, you could be the only kid on your block still using training wheels in the eleventh grade.
But you persevered and kept trying and falling, trying and falling. Putting a little time in every day after school because your goal was bigger than the what-ifs. Eventually, the training wheels came off, you were on a “real” bike and Lance Armstrong had some competition in the neighborhood.
Perseverance is a funny thing. I liken it to running, something I hate to do but do because I know it’s good for me. When I first start out, the running is fun and easy. It doesn’t take long before it gets painful and the end seems impossibly far away. But then I hit my stride and the path doesn’t seem as hard. I see my career much the same way, that same painful, difficult journey, that had its ups and downs, fun and easy days…and impossible ones, too, before I reached a place where I was in a zone.
When I’m running, I have hope that I’ll reach the end, intact and with my lungs still functioning. But then, just before I get there, it gets hard again. Harder than it’s been the entire trip. My body screams at me to stop, to give up before my lungs and heart explode. But I push on, one step at a time, often coaxing myself with every footfall, doing a funny combination of mental motivation and drill instructor talks.
And then it happens. The end is reached, my lungs are clear, and the sense of accomplishment runs through me with an adrenaline rush.
I did it, even when I thought I couldn’t. And tomorrow, I’ll get up and do it again because I know if I can hold on just a little longer, all my dreams will be waiting for me.
I hope that you, too, can press on for your dreams. Believe in yourself, keep pressing, and don’t be afraid to take the training wheels off…and those dreams will come true.