On Not Giving Up When You’re Told No: for #PitchWars people and everyone who feels like giving up today

So, it’s #PitchWars, pre-Dragon Con season, my busiest time of year. I’m in the middle of map deadlines, reading the fantastic slush that applied for a mentor/mentee program called Pitch Wars that I’ve participated in every year since I got agented.

This year, I’ve been reading some pretty fantastic subs. If you’re not familiar with Pitch Wars, it’s a contest where writers of middle grade, young adult, and adult (all genres) apply to have their work mentored by agented and/or published authors, editors, and publishing professionals to have their work shaped and honed for an agent round in November. I’m seeing a lot of amazing things this year, and most of what I’ve received is being sorted in Yes/Absolutely Yes/Oh my goodness YES folders. It’s really become a everything I’m reading here is awesome, but what in here is great sort of problem.

I can only choose one to be my mentee for this particular contest in this particular year.

This is a disheartening thing, knowing we mentors pick and choose only to select one. This means many will enter this ambiguous area of your work is great, but I still couldn’t choose it because I must pick one. So, I wanted to take some time and talk about not giving up. Because I’m an artist, I’m going to use art.


A few years ago, back in 2013, I ran my first art booth. I wasn’t producing quality work, and I think I maybe sold one print that whole day, but I learned a lot from the process of having to get a shop ready, get prints made, get a square app to accept card payments, bring cash on hand, talk to people, and generally learn from the experience.

Recently, as in last year and this past summer, I went through a couple processes (not unlike Pitch Wars) to kick my art in the butt and get it up to where I knew my potential COULD be. I tried out for an apprentice program with a studio, I took the summer session with the inimitable Giuseppe Castellano (full review coming on that once I finish that art piece!) and got my certificate in graphic design online with CalArts.

Today and yesterday, I released a promo piece online for the Merrimack Valley Book Festival. This piece meant a lot to me for a couple reasons, for a reason that was only known by me when I submitted it to Christopher Golden for consideration with promoting the festival.

First, this was a piece I drew four years ago, not at all indicative of the way I draw now. I tried to sell prints of it at my first booth, and people liked the concept, but no one bought it. Last fall, I privately set about using it as a way to study digital painting (which I felt I sucked at) and a way to learn Corel Painter 2016 and Kyle Brushes. I wanted to take an old drawing and color it better than the first time I tried.

This is what it looked like before:


I dug it up last fall when I was between jobs and didn’t know quite where I wanted to go with my career and stuck the original pencils in Corel and started learning to paint. I quite liked the drawing and premise, but had no idea what I was doing with Painter, and played around with it anyway.

What came out was this:


Pretty good, pretty good, still not there.

I took the class with the Illustration Department, got my butt handed to me in the best way trying to learn Kyle brushes in Photoshop, and ended up taking part of what I drew in Painter out of Painter. I stuck it into Photoshop for this result:



I mean, the difference here is HUGE. You can see it, right? This is the difference between my work in 2013 and my work in 2017. THIS is what not giving up looks like, this is what continuous study, trying over again and again to learn process, craft, asking for feedback, trying and failing looks like.

I tried and failed a lot, but I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere after about four years of sending my work out for jobs, getting critiques, being told no, being told yes. No matter what I heard, I kept going, even when it meant having to ignore people I looked up to that told me I wasn’t good enough, even when I told myself I wasn’t good enough.

I’ve been told all kinds of things between 2013 and 2017: that I wasn’t a good enough artist, that I wasn’t going to make it as both writer and illustrator, that nobody is both a writer AND an illustrator, that I should give up and “just do one” dozens upon dozens more times than someone said I was going to make it. I’ve also been told my maps helped increase the sales of books, that my art was direct in helping people decide whether or not to pick up a book to read. I heard more and more “yes” as the years went on. I kept going.

It gets easy to listen to that little voice inside your head, #PitchWars people, writers, illustrators, artists of all types. It gets easy to listen to that melodic call of “I’m not good enough if I’m not chosen.” Heck, I’ve believed it from time to time my entire career since I started to do this crazy thing that seems impossible to do. BUT, if I had listened to that voice in my head that I wasn’t going to make it, or the dozens upon dozens of people who said I never would, my art wouldn’t be used to help promote some of my favorite writers living today.

Don’t listen.

Keep going.

Even if I end up being the one telling you no, I’m not able to mentor you this year, keep going.


You will see the results in one year, two years, five, ten. Guaranteed. Sometimes that’s easier to “see” with art, so I’m writing this today for you, for anyone who feels like giving up today or any other day. Just keep going.

For direct comparison:



One Comment Add yours

  1. M.L. Keller says:

    Love this. Thanks so much for sharing. Too many people think creative arts are all talent. You either have it or you don’t. But it just isn’t true. Whether it’s writing, singing, or visual arts, “talent” is nothing without practice and study.


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