Friday, November 2, 2007

On Becoming a Published Writer

Becoming a published writer is an endurance sport. I've been at it for nine years, and I'm still not there yet. However, you learn an awful lot along the way. I've been up and down in my moods for the past eight months or so, ever since THE GUARDIAN failed to find an agent, but recently I'm learning to have more innate confidence in myself.

No, it's more than that. I'm learning how to recognize good writing, and how to tell when I'm not creating it versus when I am. I'm learning how to let go of the little passages that I love, but which just don't fit; how to maintain pacing to keep the reader's interest without sacrificing characterization; how to weave scenery description effortlessly into the action; how to reveal emotion and character by truly showing, rather than telling. I'm learning how to be a professional author.

It's funny, because a lot of that was stuff I already did intuitively. But when you work based on your intuition alone, your craft controls you, rather than the other way around. So when things aren't working (which inevitably will happen to every writer many times in every book), the purely-intuitive writer is going to be at a loss as to how to fix things. Not to say that this writer won't eventually figure it out through experimentation, reflection, or the help of mentors or peers -- just to say that it will either take more time and frustration than it should, or take that outside influence.

And that's a big thing for the aspiring writer -- outside influence. Those of us who are trying to become published (and who don't simply subscribe to ars artis gratia) are all looking for positive reinforcement. We want our friends, family, critique partners, and other first readers to love it. We want every agent we approach to offer to sign us, and for all the publishers to get into an intense bidding war and lavish a huge marketing budget on us. We want Hollywood to have such strong interest that we can dictate the terms to the point that we retain some level of artistic oversight, and we want to be on the NYT bestseller list and to get as many awards as Cormac McCarthy. While we're still aspiring, we can imagine that it will all happen for us on our first try.

When the first really hard rejection hits, it can be difficult not to feel like hanging it up. The really hardheaded among us, the career writers, don't feel like those dreams are gone after a rejection, just like we've been temporarily set back. The thought of quitting is there in our darkest moments, however, and it's tempting in many ways, but not really an option. Sure, maybe we could say that we quit for a few years -- maybe we could even think we had quit during that time. But sooner or later, we know we'll come back to it.

So we sit back down and write some more, but now it's with significantly less confidence, with significantly more hesitation. If we've gotten professional feedback from someone in the industry, we treat it as gospel -- to the point of harm at times. If we're told we're too wordy, our next book is severely underwritten. If we're told our pacing is too slow, our next book is a bit too fast. But these knee-jerk reactions are the sort of thing that can be fixed with careful editing and revision, fortunately, so the careful writer (who has thoughtful, competent, patient critique partners) might go on to good success with that second book. But at the same time, it becomes a lot easier to see why the average writer completes three manuscripts that don't sell before they come up with one that finally does.

Somewhere in this whole process, we have to start to learn to stand on our own. We have to start realizing that the recognition of the industry, or the reactions of our critique partners, or what anyone else thinks, is less important than what we know. We finally have some feeling for what is good and what isn't, and the comments of others only augment that knowledge, rather than always superseding it. This isn't to say that we become arrogant, or that we no longer listen, just that we become a semi-experienced member of the industry in our own right, and no longer feel the newbie's constant need to do whatever someone with a few credentials says. We become discerning, and listen to some people in the industry, and not to others. We form our own informed opinions. And when we do sign with an agent, and then with a publisher, hopefully we're in a position to act like a real novelist should: like an informed, courteous, open-minded professional with a spine.

Of course, there are those who shortcut this whole process, and find success more easily than most of us. But I wonder who is better off: the writer who suffers in ignominy for years, building discipline and knowledge before joining the ranks of the published author; or the writer who produces a publishable work on talent alone, and who goes into the industry without knowledge, experience, or a real appreciation for how valuable their new profession should be to them?

I'm not speaking of anyone in particular here. I actually don't know any writers who fit the second description. Everyone I've heard of had to work their way into the industry over many years, and essentially took the first path. Even novelists with famous parents, like Joe Hill (Stephen King's son). Yet this second path is the goal of so many aspiring writers, and so many of us seem to feel a little bit like failures when it doesn't happen. Not being an overnight success doesn't make you a failure: it might just make you more likely to be a sustainable success when you do make it.

When you're still on the upward slope, however, sometimes that's hard to believe. That's all a part of learning to stand on your own, without needing the overt support of someone in authority. I'm not completely there yet, but I'm a lot closer than I once was. Here's wishing the best in this regard for the rest of you, too. Here's hoping that we all have the endurance that this profession requires.

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