Writing is never easy, and getting your work published can be harder still. As every writer knows, a thick skin is one of the essential tools of the trade. “Rejection, to writers, is the equivalent of being knocked down as a boxer, being heckled as a comedian, or not getting callbacks as an auditioning actor: something they must learn to endure.” So says veteran writer and writing teacher Ralph Keyes in this wonderfully inspiring book about the difficulties faced by writers.
To say that Keyes understands the pain of a writer’s life would be an understatement. He explores every anxiety, every insecurity, every fear you might face, and then helps you get beyond them. Take writer’s block, for example. Keyes blames it on unrealistic expectations. He urges you to accept the fact that your writing will always be imperfect and tells you to get on with it anyway.
Keyes style is to skillfully describe a problem and then present an alternate view, a way of overcoming the obstacle. The book is filled with useful anecdotes and examples taken from real life. Just had your short story rejected? Keyes tells you how Saul Bellow had his stories rejected, even though he’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature. Can’t sell your first novel? Keyes explains how mega-bestselling author John Grisham was forced to peddle his first novel out of the trunk of his Volvo.
The first part of Keyes’ book explains “internal” obstacles to writing: how we stop ourselves through anxiety, frustration and despair. He wants writers to understand that these negative feelings are normal, even among the greatest writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, after finishing The Great Gatsby, spoke of being “overcome with fears and forebodings.” Gustave Flaubert was completely neurotic while writing Madame Bovary. Alas, neurosis is probably part of every writer’s makeup, but Keyes shows that you can learn to make peace with it.
Keyes also helps you understand the negative feelings you get from other people, people he calls “discouragers.” These are family members, teachers, co-workers and others who think you’re being “unrealistic” by trying to be a writer—the folks who say, “Sure, you’re a writer, but what do you really do?” Keyes explains the mindset of these discouragers: They’re usually jealous that you’re following your dreams. “I’ll show you,” is perhaps the best response to them.
Keyes is no dummy. He knows the odds are against you if you try to get a book published. What he does, and does brilliantly, is to show you that publishers have been wrong time and time again. Dozens of publishers rejected Grisham and Tom Clancy and most of the writers who are today’s household names. “The truth is,” Keyes says, “that when it comes to predicting which books will succeed in the marketplace, pub[lishing] people are close to clueless.” And Keyes explains why. He describes publishing people as limited in outlook. They mostly live in New York City. They mostly attended the same elite Eastern colleges. They mostly spend time talking to each other, rather than to the general book-buying public.
After reading Keyes’ perspective on publishing people, you’ll never again look upon them as infallible judges of your work. This is decidedly a good thing. Keyes urges you to trust your own valuation of your work above all others’. You need to push on despite the inevitable rejections.
The final part of Keyes’ book tells you 10 ways to keep hope alive, especially if you’re feeling low. One way is to keep in mind all the great writers who have been rejected in the past. Your book’s not selling well? Melville’s Moby Dick was a complete commercial failure. You might join a writers group for the support it provides. Keyes also highly recommends doing something you’re doing right now: reading publications such as The Writer.
Other reasons for hope? Keyes believes the Internet is one, since it gives writers direct access to readers. Also encouraging is the proliferation of small presses and the ease of self-publishing.
Keyes concludes with a helpful alternative to the difficulties of publishing: the joys of writing for its own sake. The immortal Emily Dickinson published a few poems in her lifetime, but then discovered that she was happy not to be published. “Publishing,” Keyes says, “is only one measure of success. There are many others . . . ” This book, with its compassionate understanding of the writer’s fragile psyche, is sure to lift your spirits when you’re feeling blue.
Chuck Leddy of Quincy, Mass., writes reviews for the Denver Post and other publications and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.