When the Outlook Is Bleak

In the constant ebb and flow of this industry, we have authors celebrating and authors in tears. Ask any agent and you will hear the same. For every author excited about their new contract another is experiencing bitter disappointment.

I wish I could fix it.

To hear the anguish is difficult, but to be the one who delivers the bad news is heart-wrenching. Why is it they seem to come in bunches? What do you do when you run into the inevitable disappointments the writing experience throws at you?

Define Success

If “success” is left undefined, it will be impossible to know if you have achieved it. Is it a byline? A certain size contract? An enthused publisher? A specific number of books sold? Making $100,000 in a year as a writer? Winning a coveted award? None of these? Then what criteria do you use to define “success” in the writing life?

Because there is very little public data available (sales info derived from Amazon rankings or Author Central is incomplete at best), a writer often defines success by comparing their situation with that of another author. (The irony is that other authors may be doing the identical comparison but going the other direction and using you as their criteria for success.) “Why are they successful and I’m not?”

Randy Alcorn wrote in his blog the following brilliant perspective:

Our culture is riddled with a poisonous spirit of entitlement. We always think we deserve more. We’re disappointed with our family, neighbors, church, the waitress, the sales clerk, and the department of motor vehicles. Ultimately we’re disappointed with God. He hasn’t given us everything we want.

What madness! If only we could see our situation clearly—even for a moment. We deserved expulsion; He gives us a diploma. We deserved the electric chair; He gives us a parade. Anything less than overwhelming gratitude should be unthinkable. He owes us nothing. We owe Him everything. When you realize you deserve nothing better than hell, it puts a “bad day” in perspective, doesn’t it?

So you’ve been rejected by yet another publisher? So your publisher failed to do what you had hoped in marketing your book? So your current publisher kicked you to the curb? So your agent thinks your new idea or manuscript is weak? Put it in perspective. Should your happiness or your contentment be contingent on publishing success?

Keep Writing

I know three successful authors who went through some very dark times in their careers. After having a half dozen books published, the first endured five years where she could not sell anything to anyone. The second had a dry spell of seven years between published novels. Seven years! Without a single sale? The third spent ten years writing nonfiction and had little or no publications before switching to fiction and finding success.

The principle here is that none of them quit writing. Each felt called to the work of writing and remained faithful to the art. Despite years of frustration, they kept at it.

So if you’ve hit a setback in your writing career, no matter the scale, take a moment or two to absorb the pain and disappointment. Then shake yourself with vigor and blink your eyes dry. Let that setback be just another step (albeit a backward one) in your writing journey.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” (2 Corinthians 4:17; Psalm 95:3-4).

[This is a revised version of a post that originally ran in August 2012. Amazing how it still holds.]

33 Responses to When the Outlook Is Bleak

  1. Avatar
    Robin Patchen August 6, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    “However a person defines success, it doesn’t feel like success when you get there.” Ain’t that the truth, Timothy!

  2. Avatar
    Ellie Kay August 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    When I first started out as a writer, I received 19 out of 20 rejections. Fast forward a few books and a few years, I can now make my living as a professional writer and I still get 9 out of 10 rejections. I had a recent year with a boatload of “no, thank yous’ and I told Steve: “I am sorry that I’m not making you any money lately. But I want you to know that God is teaching me that I’m not what I do. I am not defined by what I do, but by who I am in Christ and who God says I am. God calls me the apple of His eye, fearfully and wonderfully made, the head and not the tail, created for a purpose and He still has plans for me.” A few months later, a book deal came through and I”m writing it now. However, I’m still not what I do, I’m who God says I am.

    • Avatar
      Jeanne August 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      Thanks for that important reminder: I am not what I do. I am who God says I am–His child.

  3. Avatar
    sally apokedak August 6, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Great stuff, Heidi.

  4. Avatar
    Lee Wimmer April 26, 2021 at 5:18 am #

    Thank you for this encouragement. I’ve only written for several years and have a lot to learn. Writing was something I had on thought of once years ago.
    Then in December 2018 I heard “the call,” some like to say. At first I didn’t heed it, preferring things I thought I could control, wrong. My spirit began feeling heavy, then in Feb. I began, just to appease the Spirit. I have been writing ever since.
    I know one day I will have an agent and publisher. But I’m just a starting to understand the business. But I will keep writing, no matter.
    Thanks again for the encouragement.

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 26, 2021 at 5:57 am #

    When the walls are closing in,
    when you are so sorely pressed,
    when the gold you’ve struck goes tin,
    stay faithful to your faithfulness.
    When the wells have all gone dry,
    when you will not find relief,
    when the vultures scale the sky,
    stay faith to what you believe.
    Even when the hook has slipped,
    even when the rope’s come loose,
    even when your heart’s been ripped
    know that it’s for you to choose
    to know that purpose is no dream,
    for faith is hope in things unseen.

  6. Avatar
    Gerardine Pang April 26, 2021 at 6:04 am #

    Thank you for the correct perspective. I will not stop writing. God bless you

  7. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson April 26, 2021 at 6:19 am #

    Ten years ago I began my journey writing romantic suspense. After multiple rejections, I tried mirroring myself after other well-known authors thinking if I wrote like them maybe that would open publishing doors. Still, rejection after rejection, all coming at dismal times in my life that seemed to kick me while I was already down. As I studied and learned one technique, I dropped all the others, then, learned something new about writing and shifted that direction. My writing became bland and my characters were like robots. Nothing promising happened. It wasn’t until I reevaluated my attitude and career path, and relationship with Christ, that I determined to be the ME God wanted of me. I found a balance in writing and building characters, not to say it’s perfect, but it’s much better now. Alas, the publishing door opened. I couldn’t manipulate, bargain, beg or cry my way into God’s plans. His timing is always perfect and as soon as I surrendered to His leading and listened to instructions, the sooner His plan for me fell into place.

  8. Avatar
    Mary Kuhlmann Antholz April 26, 2021 at 7:25 am #

    Thanks, Steve. We needed that.

  9. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca April 26, 2021 at 7:36 am #

    “Anything less than overwhelming gratitude should be unthinkable.” I agree with Randy Alcorn’s wonderful blog post. We live in a time and place where we can write easily and publish at will. What more could we ask?

    We should be singing Hallelujah every day that we’re so fortunate. And then we should discipline ourselves in the craft of writing and apply it.

  10. Avatar
    Jeannie Delahunt April 26, 2021 at 8:05 am #

    Dry spells are inevitable. I’ve learned to keep on going as best you can. Seasons begin. Seasons end. Hang in there. Use the time to learn and grow.

    That’s what surviving a dry spell means to me.

    Love the picture of the train in the fog, too!

  11. Avatar
    Toni Wilbarger April 26, 2021 at 8:25 am #

    Thank you, Steve. Indeed, this is timeless advice. I will forward this post to a writer friend of mine who is slogging through a rough patch during her path to publication.

  12. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks April 26, 2021 at 8:40 am #

    Yes! Just getting up every day to write, despite the disappointments, has given me many many words. Some great, some terrible, but none of them would be here if I’d given up on my dream.

  13. Avatar
    Elliott Slaughter April 26, 2021 at 9:17 am #

    One thing that makes the writing life difficult is that it is very much a celebrity culture. As a software engineer, if you’re at the 50th percentile in terms of skill level, you can at least make a living wage. A writer at the 50th percentile makes literally zero. You probably have to get to the 90th percentile to make anything at all, and to the 99th percentile before you’re talking about enough money to live on. The breakout successes are gathered into a small number of individuals who seem to be able to print money while everyone else sits in the dark. So it’s hardly surprising that people (authors included) practically worship these celebrities.

    This all makes it very hard to keep your head screwed on straight. What is success? What does God want from me in this discipline where very few people ever make a living wage? How will God use my writing, whether or not it is “successful” by industry standards?

    Thank you, Steve, for the reminder to be true to my call, and always grateful for what God has already given me, regardless of what comes next.

  14. Avatar
    Claire O'Sullivan April 26, 2021 at 10:05 am #

    Steve,

    A great reminder. I have several of Bob’s prayers from his daily prayer blog, one of which starts with, ‘Lord please deliver me from the unexamined life.’ It goes on from there – I might add I have added several, such as impatient, jealous, frustrated, disappointed life. And a few more.

    It’s been a long, long journey for me to learn that concept, but putting God first and realizing that He may have been speaking to me through those words. Words that reflected my life (not in a godly way) and what so needed to be addressed and dropped at the foot of the cross.

    Rejections have become learning experience, even if someone says, “no,” or nothing at all. Something in the manuscript has not resonated with the agent or publisher. And I still focus on “what is He trying to teach me?” And “what do I need to take away?” As in working the craft.

    After about 15 rejections, I finally became a published author with enough money to spend on a few grocery items its first quarter (hahaha).

    If I am not walking in His will, if I am not giving Him the glory, then it means nothing. But if one person who is backsliding or hasn’t accepted Christ as Savior does, then nothing has been lost. Not even if God was shaking just me by the shoulders. He oft reminds me that my identity is in Him. Not what I do or accomplish.

  15. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield April 26, 2021 at 10:19 am #

    Thank you, Steve! Many of my articles have been published in the popular press and professional journals, but none of my dozen BOOKS are in print. Alpha and beta readers of the novels, an editor, even agents, all gave strong positive feedback; but there is always one thing lacking: a platform. So with clear provision from God, last fall I signed up for Thomas’s course to remedy that. But now I have a boatload of personal responsibilities and can’t keep up with the assignments. Sigh. Your post hit hard: today my “outlook is bleak,” and your descriptor of “blinking your eyes dry” is apt. What a perfectly timely encouragement you’ve given and others have reinforced! I must be faithful to my new, pressing responsibilities, but I must keep writing and submitting, too, while daily recommitting to my faith in God’s answers and timing. Thanks!

  16. Avatar
    Chet Weld April 26, 2021 at 12:18 pm #

    I define success as pleasing God. I recently wrote a book, and after over 1,000 hours of editing, it’s in good shape (even though I’ve still found a few errors!). God may want a big publisher to promote and sell my book, or he may want me to self-publish and only sell 500 or so books. Either way, I know that God is pleased … and I’ve learned a lot.

  17. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU April 26, 2021 at 12:38 pm #

    Hi Mr Steve,
    Thanks for your encouragement and advice that we continue to write as writers, no matter the set backs faced. God bless you.

    I personally, have moved away from where I base my happiness and success as a writer on sales, reviews, other writer’s successes, etc.
    Now, I marvel and praise God at my ability to create with words! I have learned to trust Him completely that my time will come at the set time. During the waiting time, I realise there is a lot to learn about the writing industry which I was ignorant of. This makes me understand my setbacks better.

    So fellow writers, don’t let a setback discourage you but be prepared for the bounty the Lord is preparing for you. There are other ways as well to get your work out there! God who gave you your talent will multiply it to bless thousands to His glory. It is well.

  18. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. April 26, 2021 at 2:10 pm #

    Thanks for the encouragement to carry on, Steve!

  19. Avatar
    Debra Celovsky April 26, 2021 at 7:20 pm #

    This is an outstanding post, Steve. Thought-provoking, perspective-correcting, and encouraging. Thank you.

  20. Avatar
    Peggy Booher April 26, 2021 at 7:27 pm #

    Steve,

    Thank you for the encouragement.

    I try to stay away from the idea of “success” as money earned or books or articles sold. I can’t control the outcome of my work. I can try my best, but that doesn’t automatically mean publication.

    It’s more helpful for me to focus on this: being able to affect my world by using my God-given creativity and imagination. By that criteria, I believe I am already a success.

    Through writing, God is giving me the privilege of learning and working in a field in which there is always more to learn and more work to do, so I can never get bored! He is also using writing to develop in me the qualities He values, such as perseverance, discipline, humility, and resilience. It is awesome to work with the Creator!

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby April 27, 2021 at 12:39 pm #

      You are so spot on, Peggy. As a retired scientist and now self-employed publisher (AKA indie author), I love numerical data, so I do track sales and what affects them. But every email, every review, every comment through my website that tells me I encouraged someone in their faith is the ultimate measure of success.

  21. Avatar
    Hannarich Asiedu April 27, 2021 at 12:34 am #

    This is such an inspiring post, Steve. Thank you so much for this.

    I never dreamed of becoming a writer. But I felt the Holy Spirit pushing me towards writing.

    I’m amazed at the words He creates through me. I certainly don’t know what the future holds, but I know the God who holds the future, and my confidence is in Him and not my writings.

    God bless you for this, Steve

  22. Avatar
    Hope Ann April 28, 2021 at 7:09 am #

    Thank you for this! It’s encouraging as I’m currently at a stage in my life where I feel I can’t /do/ much with writing. It’s a good reminder to know that dry periods don’t have to last.

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