How to Stay Positive When You Are Still Unpublished

My hometown library graciously hosted a book selling/book signing for all the local authors. Library staff organized the event, marketed it—even provided donuts and coffee. It was free for the authors. Forty-five of us, dreamy and optimistic, tucked between book shelves and vending machines, with our books, flyers, and smart phone magstripe readers.

I think six people, who were not related to the other authors, showed up. At least that’s how many swept by my booth. (Not counting my sweet friends who came for hugs or texted encouragement!)

The absence of public traffic allowed the authors to chat with one another. With sheepish grins, we lamented the quietude of the library. We admitted that royalties overall were slim to none. We relayed the two years it took to find an agency or publisher that would take a chance on our book. If we were that lucky. And we acknowledged the lack of book reviews and rise of social media stasis.

Despite all that, we kept smiling. It felt good to be together. These are my people, and we need one another.

The struggle is real, authors. And so this one is for you.

We are generally a shy crowd, with books for best friends, voices in our heads, and carpal tunnel in our fingers. But to be able to say “I am an author,” we must do the thing. And that thing involves not only writing the book but selling the book, which we all abhor. It involves engagement with our audience, whom we adore. But it’s not so fun when there is no response or perhaps even no audience.

Now I know why Emily Dickinson stayed in her room.

Emily Dickinson

If you are still reading and you are not an author, you might think I’m whinging. I do not mean to, I promise. I am grateful for the writing life. I am passionate about books and storytelling. I don’t want a different life.

But I need to be truthful and transparent just this once: Writing. Is. Hard.

I want this work to be my livelihood, not an all-consuming, just-for-the-fun-of-it hobby. I have three sons who, I assume, will want to go to college (just four years away for the oldest). I want more for all my hard work. And there’s a million things, I haven’t done. But just you wait, just you wait—oh, er—I think I accidentally lapsed into song. Sorry.

Our propane ran out today. It’s March, but it’s still cold here in Virginia, and so I feed the wood stove every half hour, while wondering how to keep the fire burning inside of me.

The other day someone asked me, “You’re a writer or something, right?” I agreed and tried to explain what that meant. I even defended myself by saying, “I’m an editor too.” Like, I do real work, just like you. Anything but say, “I’m an unemployed novelist,” right?

I felt almost choked. I felt such pain. I hadn’t felt that way in a while, but I remembered well the feeling. Before two years ago, when I started preparing my book for publication, I was fanning myself with rejection letters. The publishing process saved me in a way. It gave me purpose, with a tangible reward in sight.

Now I am waiting again. I’m in between. I have a finished manuscript breathing down my neck—I want to be a book too!—but I am waiting for someone to tell me it can be a book . . . or not. I have done my research. I have sent out my letters. And now I wait and listen for any sound of a door being opened.

In the meantime, the rejection letters filter in. It’s been about one or two a week. At first, I was okay with that. After all, I’ve been here before. But once in a while, it stings. I mean, how many times can you hear “no” and still whistle a happy tune?

(Have you heard that silence is the new rejection? Crickets might actually cheer me up a bit right about now.)

Listen: I am not writing this to complain. Like I said before, I need to truthfully acknowledge this difficulty because I am feeling it. And I bet I’m not the only one playing a fiddle here.

But moreover, I want to share with you the hope I have found. Yes, hope! See, I am waiting, but I am not giving up hope. And I am still writing. And if you’re in the same boat I’m in, I don’t want you to give up either.

Hang here with me for a bit, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned during this period of waiting. It is not a time of dryness or neglect at all. It is abundant with promise.

Here’s what we can do while we wait to get noticed. . . .

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Think of Query Letters as Love Letters

I sent my pitch letters out the week of Valentine’s Day, and I infused them with my utmost love.

You, dearest agent or editor, may be the one to represent and/or publish my book. I have chosen you. Now only say the word, and I can be yours.

That’s not really what I wrote, of course, but it is the sentiment behind the pitch. This perspective transforms the typical emotions that accompany query letters: dread, yearning, anxiety, expectancy, heartache, nausea. These are the unfortunate side effects of seeking publication. Along with the sudden outbreak of Hamilton lyrics. (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”)

Send those letters with the intention of bestowing affection, and you will understand the virtue in the process. If it’s something we must go through, then let’s do it with dignity and heart.

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Meet Rejection with Gratitude

But what to do when your love is unrequited? No matter! When you send love into the world, it’s not up to you what becomes of it. You’ve done your part, and love is never given in vain.

Right, but it still doesn’t feel good.

I know. Fellow author, I know. One of my responses said, “Sorry, but no.” That was it. Ouch.

Here’s a trick. When that letter arrives that doesn’t say what you wanted it to say, celebrate it. That’s right, I said celebrate. You are one step closer to finding the right agent/editor/publisher for you. That just wasn’t the one!

I am so thankful to hear a polite decline from those who do not fall in love with my book or feel confident that they can sell it. It means he or she isn’t the one. Who would want the “sorry, but no” agent? Not me.

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Visualize the Acceptance

A few weeks ago, I started to dread opening my email app. What horrible news would await me? When I saw an email pop up in my inbox, my heart would hammer. Not good. Obviously, I need to check my email and I need not to have panic attacks when I do.

Then, one night I had a dream. I dreamt that a man and a woman were both asking to sell my manuscript. I remember feeling such delightful shock: Not just one, but two agents want to represent me? When I woke up, I knew it was okay to check my email. What if, one day, I get that message: “Please send me your complete manuscript.”? I need to read my emails so I don’t miss it when it happens!

Join me in visualizing the acceptance letter. Feel how it will feel to read it. Imagine your surprise when it drops into your inbox. Go ahead and close your eyes now. See yourself on the journey to publication. After all, you’re already on it!

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Know That Income Does Not Equal Worth

Repeat after me: I am worth more than my royalty check. (That is unless you’re J. K. Rowling, and in that case, I applaud you and I’m not worthy.)

Most months, my expenses exceed what I make from book sales. But I don’t write only to get paid.

You know what I value more than income?

When a reader tells me I made them laugh . . . or cry . . . or think differently about something. When a client tells me “This was your best one yet,” “I don’t know how you do it.”

When I write, I want to touch people. The best thing in the world is when a reader tells me how my story made them feel. It’s worth far more than a book sale.

Hold on to that feedback, author. That is your currency.

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Look for the Signs

I got into the car with my mom the other week, and she said, “Guess who was looking at me from my mailbox this week?”

“A spider?” I guessed.

“No, look!” She handed me her University of Virginia alumni magazine. On the cover was an image of Edgar Allan Poe. “It’s a sign,” she said.

She says this because my manuscript is about Poe. My mom is good at looking for and reading the signs; she tells me about all the historical fiction bestsellers in the book shops and magazines.

Right now I need signs. And when I can’t see them for myself, my family and friends point them out.

I heard a teacher the other day tell her students to keep their eyes open for signs. About one in particular, she said, “I’m taking this one personally.”

So I find myself talking to that magazine cover, which has come from my mother’s mailbox to my table. “This is for you, Eddie.” I’m taking it personally too.


Remember Who You Are

Nobody owes you anything. Respect. Props. That’s not what this is about. But I want you to keep this in mind: the world might not realize who you are yet. That is not to sound egotistical, because you may not know who you are either.

Once I hosted a writing workshop for girls, during which we looked at the Hero’s Journey. After teaching it, I asked the students to create the Heroine’s Journey for themselves—they being said heroines. “Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going?”

We watched the scene from Moana, when the main character’s dead grandmother asks her “Do you know who you are?” To which Moana replies in song, listing all the things she learned about herself and realizing “I know the way.”

And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me

It’s like the tide always rising and falling



Now, I am no Disney princess, but I believe we too often forget who we are. So allow me tell you who you are:

You are an author. A storyteller. A poet. A dreamer. You are not alone. You are not afraid. You are accepted, not rejected—favored, not overlooked. If you are as yet unpublished, you will not always be so. There is an agent, editor, reader who is waiting for you and your story. You are on your way.

Don’t Think This Is the End of the Road

When I think all hope is lost, I must remember this. I will never run out of options. Not every door will stay closed to me. I’m going to make it someday. Just you wait.

And so will you.

If I can be your Sam Gamgee for a moment . . .

It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
Samwise Gamgee


Keep going, friend. Keep holding on. It will all be worth it in the end.