Against All Odds

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

What is it about January that makes us doubt our dreams and huddle under the covers, sucking our thumbs? We’ve just come through the cheery holidays and made bold resolutions for the new year but by the second or third week of January it feels like we are rowing against the wind.

I just wanted to give you a good old “snap out of it.” I’ve long kept this list of against-the-odds successes. If I remember correctly most came from a Dear Abby column from years ago:

  • He was told that his drawings were stupid and he’d never be a cartoonist – Walt Disney
  • He was told he was a mediocre  chemist and should try something else – Louis Pasteur
  • He failed algebra – Albert Einstein
  •  Label him “too stupid to learn” and you have a Thomas Edison.
  • Make him a hopeless alcoholic and you have Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  •  Tell her she’s too old to start painting at 80, and you have Grandma Moses.
  •  John Milton, blind at age 44, wrote “Paradise Lost” 16 years later.
  • Call him dull and hopeless and flunk him in the sixth grade, and you have a Winston Churchill.
  •  Punish her with poverty and prejudice and she became Golda Meir.
  •  Pit her against sexual discrimination and you have Madame Curie.
  •  Make him second fiddle in an obscure South American orchestra and you have Toscanini.

As an agent, I have story after story of success-against-the-odds. You regularly see Jill Eileen Smith’s name on the bestseller lists. I first read Jill’s manuscript about Michal, King David’s first wife, and loved it. I knew no one was buying biblical fiction at the time. No one. I took her on anyway. This was a manuscript she’d been pitching for close to twenty years. One day, at a writer’s conference in Oregon, I sat having coffee with an editor friend, Lonnie Hull Dupont. She turned to me and out of the blue, said, “I think I’d like to try some biblical fiction.” I must have sat there with my mouth open. I told her about Jills book and she laughed. She had met Jill at a writer’s conference almost twenty years earlier, read the manuscript, which then had David as the main character. She had told Jill to change the main character to the wives. It took Jill a while to come around but she had eventually rewritten the book incorporating Lonnie’s suggestion. Lonnie made an offer on behalf of Revell and now, some five books later (with another already written and five more contracted) it’s a wonderful success story.

But think about it. That January, eighteen years in, when no one seemed interested in her books, don’t you think it was hard for Jill to keep hope alive?

It may be a dreary January but who knows what is around the bend. And here’s a hint: at times like these, it is important to keep the Dementors* at bay.

*”Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.” (from Harry Potter)

How do you keep hope alive against all odds? Would you keep going if you’d had twenty years of rejection letters? And in these days when naysayers abound, how do you keep the Dementors away?

 

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77 Comments

  • Good morning, Wendy. This post doesn’t feel like a “snap out of it.” It feels more like a shot in the arm. Thank you!

    The other day, I read an agent’s post of her agency’s statistics for 2012. Over 32,000 queries had been sent to the agency; fourteen clients were signed. My knee-jerk reaction was “With odds like that,how can I possibly hope to succeed?” Then I settled down and read all of the statistics. The number of sample pages requested was actually quite large. The number of full manuscripts was considerably fewer and, of course, in the end, only fourteen writers were signed. One thing that I told myself was that the agents probably made an offer of representation to more than fourteen writers (not a huge amount more, but a few more) and that those writers may have gone with a different agency. Okay, that was only a little glimmer of hope. The thing that gave me the most hope was noticing how the numbers fell off as the agents read more and more of the actual manuscript. That indicates to me that the drop in numbers had, at least in part, to do with the quality of the writing and the strength of the plot. That thought gives me encouragement. I believe that if I work my hardest to present a quality piece of writing, I have a leg up on those writers who have rushed to send out their manuscripts.

    Another thing that gives me hope is illustrated in your story: if God wants it to happen, it will happen–in God’s time. My job, in addition to doing my best writing and work to get the business side right (study and work on how to write effective query letters and book proposals). And then my job is to persevere. I will admit, though, that twenty years could be disheartening.

    You said that no one was buying biblical fiction at the time. That brings me to my final hope (and fear). I am writing a YA fantasy. Theoretically, I should be in good shape because YA and fantasy are hot markets right now. However, I haven’t found any current YA books (or adult books for that matter) with Faeries as main characters. I do worry that when agents and editors read the words “teenage Faerie” they will think “Tinkerbell,” (which the character is nothing like)and immediately cast the query aside as having an archaic character type. Then I tell myself that my main character makes the book unique. No wizards, werewolves or vampires in sight. Just Faeries, dragons, unicorns and a host of supernatural beings from Celtic folklore and my imagination. I hope to start a trend!

    I am likely a idealistic romantic, but I do believe the book has promise. In fact, I believe, with hard work, perseverance and God’s grace, it will be published traditionally.
    It is that belief that keeps me going when my realistic side tells me that the odds are not only against me, but that I’m pursuing the impossible.

    Blessings on your day! :)

    • Jeanne T says:

      Good for you, Christine, keeping your story alive in your mind, and your hope alive in your heart. I like your change in perspective, figuring out what you can do to increase your “odds” of being read (and represented) by a agent one day. :)

    • I love Jill’s story. So encouraging. I met her just as she was waiting to hear from Revell, and she was so calm. At least, she looked that way to me. And now look at how her career has taken off.

      I am struggling with this a bit right now, but what works–for awhile, anyway–is to remember that not everyone is going to like my stuff. And that’s okay. I need to write for my market and my readers and do the best I can. And then let God do whatever He wants with it.

    • I have …I’m speechless, Christine. Wow.

      “It is that belief that keeps me going when my realistic side tells me that the odds are not only against me, but that I’m pursuing the impossible.”

      I’m deeply impressed.

    • ‘I believe that if I work my hardest to present a quality piece of writing, I have a leg up on those writers who have rushed to send out their manuscripts.’

      I agree wholeheartedly with this comment Christine.The importance of diligence in my craft has been highlighted as I read this blog.

    • Keep up the great work, Christine. Go ahead an pursue the impossible, because we know that nothing is impossible with God.

      Many blessings.

    • I love books with faeries! Particularly the stories that present the very un-Disney version of the Fey. I was so excited to encounter the fair folk in Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Heartless because she presents them with all the mystery and allegory inherent in folklore, not as Tinkerbell!

      Best of luck with your faerie YA. I hope to read it one day.

    • I think your book sounds awesome, Christine. Much as I love YA, I’m so tired of vampires and werewolves. Bring on the fresh fantasy! Is your book inspirational or mainstream? I’d read it either way, so there’s your audience…and counting!

      • Thank you, Rachelle! :) Technically, it’s mainstream, but there is a spiritual subtext aka C.S. Lewis. There are themes of service and listening to what your soul is calling you to. Ultimately, my teenage protagonist is almost seduced by a charming Dragon King who promises to give her heart’s desire and great power–as long as she surrenders her entire self to him. So there are Christian themes in it, but it isn’t directly inspirational.

        Thank you for asking about it and for your affirmation.

        Many blessings!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I like the way you think, Christine. Statistics are useless in figuring out what are “chances” are because the outcome is connected to the quality. It’s not like figuring out your chance to win the lottery when there’s no way to affect the outcome. With getting published it is all about the craftsmanship and the idea. If your writing is exquisite and your story unforgettable and the market is ready you have a one out of one chance of getting published.

      You’ve identified that the market may not be ready for your book right now. Then you have to make sure the craftsmanship and the story override the possibly negative market.

      • “If your writing is exquisite and your story unforgettable and the market is ready you have a one out of one chance of getting published.” I LOVE that, Wendy! It’s so encouraging. You have given me so much hope. Thank you!

        Blessings! :)

    • Dee Bright says:

      Christine, thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your heart. You did a superb job of expressing the fears many of us have, or have had. But what I loved best was watching your hidden hopes and dreams rise up through those fears as they were illuminated by your optimistic attitude!

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you for this encouragement. Just what I needed to hear today :) You just simply cannot give up, no matter how hard it feels.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Wendy, I appreciate your post. Citing those who were deemed failures by society and considering what they did, well that’s a great encouragement in itself. :)

    The thought I always come back to is that God gave this story to ME, not to someone else. I want to write it, for Him to use as He will. I’m learning lots of craft and in relationships in the process of writing and re-writing. God seems to have a way of giving me encouragement through the words of others just when I need it most. This helps me to keep going when the inner voices tell me otherwise.

  • Tari Faris says:

    Great reminder, Wendy! Over and over as I have prayed about my goals and writing plans for this year, I feel led back to the truth that God knows what He is doing and He is never slow to get us where he wants us.

    About six months ago, I felt challenged by The Lord – would I write just because He asked, even if it never led to publication. I had to return with, “Yes.” Because although publication is my goal, my ultimate goal of being a servant to God overshadows that.

    What a story about God and His perfect timing for Jill and Jill’s willingness to obey in the face of must have seemed like an impossible situation. I’ll have to tack it up in my writing area as a great reminder.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Good morning, Wendy. I’m actually feeling pretty peppy on the writing front this January. Might have something to do with signing with an agent not long ago! The problem with being on an upswing is that the Dementors (or, hey, let’s just call him Satan) love to lie in wait for the perky people. First little stumble and I expect a Dementor will leap on my back!

    So I’m trying to inoculate myself against the fears, the worries and the bad thoughts. Daily doses of scripture, prayer and writing are my formula. I spend time with God and I keep writing–makes the voices of the Dementors at least a little bit softer. And it reminds me that when they come calling all I have to do is ask them to speak to my Supervisor ; )

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    The honest answer? Some years are easier to snap out of than others! Keeping a steady prayer conversation helps me through the rough patches. Knowing God’s will in my life makes all the difference!

  • I’m still fairly fresh on the writing train, so I’m still hopeful for all that’s to come. I’ve had a few rejections, but I admit…it would be really difficult to keep going if I’d had 20 years’ worth. I’d definitely question whether it’s what God had for me.

    But so far, I do believe this is the path He’s laid before me. This year at ACFW, I was freaking out before my first-ever pitch session. Seriously. Just thinking, “God, I’m going to screw this up!” I went into the prayer room and pulled out my phone to read a verse…any verse.

    THIS was the verse of the day (I don’t believe it was a coincidence): “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”

    It’s now my life verse. God started this work in me. I have to work hard, yes, but He’ll finish what He started. And whatever that means–wherever it leads–it’s my job to hang on for the ride.

  • Well, good morning Coach Wendy!
    Another example of who was told that their brains were made for hard labour? A person I know, I can’t use their name or even their gender, was told by a 4th grade math teacher that they’d never amount to anything math related. That person now has an earned PhD in a freakishly difficult math field AND works for a company that is known, literally, the world over. Anyone in the entire world who uses a computer can thank this person every single day. So there, 4th grade teacher!
    And let’s not forget a frumpy, nerdy, spinster from Scotland named Susan Boyle. She dreamed BIG, didn’t she?

    Oh my word, Wendy, I needed this SO much, thank you. Last night, I was feeling like I was standing alone in Fort Sumner, apologizing for failing to get the story out. But I need to get it done right, as opposed to getting it done in my time. God is not finished sculpting His will for this story. I need to get on my knees again with this.
    It’s funny, we all talk about ‘when’. In Native American culture, the measurement of time is not linear, it’s cyclical. As in, ‘it will get done’.
    Ironic,isn’t it, that sounds rather Biblical. God doesn’t wear a watch and He’s never late to His own appointments.

  • I have a feeling, Wendy, that you’ve opened a floodgate today.

  • Tiana Smith says:

    It’s funny how looking back can make all the difference. Those people who doubted them probably felt pretty stupid when they made it big.

  • Lori says:

    There has been so many naysayers in my life that I have lost count. So many teachers, employers, and family memebers had considered me a failure. However, I try to remember two songs: one is “I Ain’t Down Yet” from the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” and the other is from “Seesaw” called “It’s Not Where You Start” where the next line is “It’s where you finish.

    With the successes that I had already in my life and the successes that I will have, I think I will finish just fine.

    • I’m so sorry, Lori, that people have been so negative to you. That’s just so tunnel-visioned of anyone to consider someone else a failure. You may not succeed at everything you do, but YOU are not a failure. I’ll repeat Wendy’s wonderful saying from her last post: “We are human BEings, not human DOings.” Never lose sight of the fact that you are a precious and unique child of God.

      I’m glad that you have chosen not to let their comments or opinions sink you. You have a great attitude. :)

      Blessings!

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    You know, it occurs to me that naysayers can be a powerful tool in our lives. How many of us when we’re told “You can’t” or “You’ll never,” say “Oh, yeah? Watch me.”

  • Lori Benton says:

    I did keep going for twenty years, with a brief time off for cancer and chemo fog. And I struggled with whether or not I should throw in the towel, even after the fog cleared and I could write again. About 15 years in I came to a place of a peace about continuing to write, because the joy was still there, the drive, the passion. And while I was writing I felt it was all right to keep knocking on those publishing doors, but whether one ever opened or not I was able to put in God’s hands, and not let it steal the joy I found in writing.

    My debut historical, Burning Sky, will release this August from WaterBrook Multnomah.

    But you already knew that, Wendy. :)

    BTW, I hear chocolate is beneficial after a bought with Dementors.

  • Love this post, Wendy. I try not to get discouraged with my writing. It happens, especially knowing my hubby doesn’t support my career choice. Thank God for my kids, who love everything I write. It all balances out. Like the others, I can see God’s work at play in my writing. That helps to waylay a lot of naysayers.

  • Mindy says:

    Needed to be reminded of this. Thanks, Wendy!

  • Lacee Hogg says:

    Love the quote from Harry Potter! :)

  • Rick Barry says:

    What an encouraging post, Wendy. It reminds me of another author. As a young man, he’d seen some good times, even enjoyed a life of luxury. But later on, things went south. He got in trouble with the law, hid from the government, and ended up sneaking out of his homeland as a refugee. At 80, he probably concluded he was a nobody who would never accomplish much. But then… God gave Moses a special assignment. Not only did this man become a key figure in history, but God used him to author several books that we still read regularly!

  • Wendy,

    Thank you for this. My verse this year is Exodus 14:14 “The Lord will fight your battles for you; all you have to do is be still.” It’s where I got my word for the year: STILL. But still is two-fold in meaning – to BE STILL, and to STILL BE. One is peace, and one is faithful. I want to do both this year. To be still (peace) and to still be (faithful).

    Your post is confirmation to me today. Thank you for giving us all a good solid kick in the hineys, as one of my most excellent southern WV writer friends would say.

    Blessings!

  • I love that you mentioned the Dementors. They are such fantastic, scary creatures and so representative of how fear sucks away our joy.

    As for dealing with that fear and doubt, my son and I have a verse we say together when he has panic attacks. 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

    What else do you need to repel fear but power, love and a sound mind? And what else could I ask for in my own life? I pray this verse for my son regularly. I pray it for myself when the Dementors get me. It has never failed me. Which is not to say I don’t sometimes choose to wallow in self-pity, but that’s a different demon. ;)

    Thanks for the pep talk and the excellent examples of folks who kept at it despite what others said.

  • Leanne says:

    I’m encouraged by this post! Thank you for sharing.

    When someone says I can’t or scoffs at me or looks at me with disbelief when I say I’m writing a book, it fuels my fire to keep going, to silence the naysayers.

  • I’ve read that the average published author took six to ten years to get published. I figure I have at least a few years to go. I remember it’s a journey and think what my first manuscript was like when I began pitching it. So glad it wasn’t picked up then. I know God will put it where it needs to be when it truly is ready–maybe soon :o).

  • Sarah Lunsford says:

    Great blog of encouragement Wendy!

    I love your reference to the Dementors because that’s exactly what happens when we concentrate on what’s around us and what we think is happening, instead of the Lord and what He’s doing.

    Looking at Him is the only way I’ve found to keep the Dementors at bay. I’m reminded of Violet Beauregard’s mother saying, “Keep your eye on the prize.”

    No matter where our individual writing pursuits take us, whether they are to increase our relationships with Him or for Him to use to encourage others in that pursuit, our prize is Him and Him alone.

    Blessings,
    Sarah

    • Sarah, your comment about keeping your eyes on the prize reminds me of a song by Sara Groves called Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Give it a listen to. It’s very encouraging.

      • Sarah Lunsford says:

        Thanks Jenni. What a beautiful song, and yes, very encouraging. It’s a song that I’ll pass on I’m sure. :)
        I hope all is going well with your writing!

  • Dee Bright says:

    The list is a great reminder, Wendy. Thanks!

  • Thanks!! Needed this!!

  • Like Harry, I eat chocolate. It always cheers me up. :)

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