Common Writing Mistake: Using Exceptions as Examples 99% of the Time

It’s inevitable. You mention writing, and you’re bound to here names like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. For the record, I’m a fan of their works.

“Horror isn’t that hard to sell—just look at Stephen King!”

“Did you hear that J.K. Rowling was rejected TWELVE times?”

For people not familiar with the publishing industry, these comments can be understandable, but I often hear other writers using superstar authors as examples for the norm, such as twelve rejections (from publishers) being a high number. (I believe Stephenie Meyer was also rejected twelve times.) I don’t want to belittle Rowling’s success. She endured a great amount of struggle in her life (as did King), and what happened with Harry Potter is amazing.

However, rejections rates for most writers are way higher; Rowling is an exception, not a rule. She queried two agents, and the second one signed her! That’s, quite frankly, astonishing even for the best query letter. It’s impressive, but most writers cannot expect to be the next Rowling. Or King. Or Meyer. It’s telling when I say Rowling received “only twelve” rejections and the reaction tend to be “What do you mean only twelve???”

Setting realistic expectations is important when avoiding discouragement. Even if an agent or a publisher loves a project, they may pass for any reason. Of course, I’m not saying we can’t use extremely successful household names in conversation, but one can’t start off comparing themselves to the most ideal scenario because that’ll breed disappointment. This isn’t to say there wasn’t merit involved in these successes; there was, but any success also involves a good bit of luck. While we shouldn’t diminish the talent involved, it’s also true that several stellar authors will also a) face hundreds of rejections or b) never become published at all.

That doesn’t mean one can’t aspire, but the best solution is to use grounded and practical examples. If anything, being told “But Stephen King did it!” is dismissive of your own current situation and the modern state of publishing. Overnight success is often an illusion. Do research. Don’t beat yourself up for not being King or Rowling. You should aspire to be the best you, and your situation can’t be replicated—and neither can theirs.

This doesn’t mean success is impossible; “success” is a nebulous and individual concept. Whatever you do, what you consider a success will not be the same as what another author thinks is “hitting it big.”

Still, keep trying.

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