Six impossible things


I feel like I keep coming in fourth at the Olympics. – Tiana Smith

Trying to break into publishing is a time-consuming and deeply discouraging process. It always has been. There is little that can make someone feel as unappreciated and untalented as a string of form rejection letters.

And there is nothing you can do to change that. (You can opt out, i.e., self-publish, but that isn’t the same as changing the submission process. It’s doing an end run around it…and you need to be very good at running for that to work, but that’s a whole different post.) When you have a publishing industry that generates approximately 600 SF novels per year, and (judging from the self-published stuff I see on the Internet) hundreds of thousands of people writing stuff they hope will get one of those 600 slots, it is going to take a while even if you are good at what you do.

This is what being a professional writer is about. And it is not just a problem for first-time novelists. I don’t know any professionals who have not been turned down by an editor, some of them quite nastily. And that includes some writers who have been making a living at this for decades, and/or have won awards ranging from minor to major.

Even after you have an established career, there will be times when the book you are excited about writing evokes no tiny spark of interest even from your agent, let alone an editor. There will be times when the agent you worked so hard to get tells you (gently or bluntly, depending on her style) that the cool, clever thing you just produced is unsellable, just like the last two, and unless you give her a proposal that has some possible sales, she’s going to have to stop representing you. Some of those times, she will even be right about the unsellability.

If you are going to have a writing career, you have to learn to deal with it.

So how do you deal with it, Ms. Wrede?

Everybody finds his or her own way of dealing with the emotional roller coaster that is writing. Some bury their heads in the sand, some get deeply involved with the minutia of their careers, some self-publish. The thing you have to remember is that no method is perfect. Sooner or later, something will get through whatever wall of reassurance you have erected, at which point, you simply have to tough it out until the wind changes and you claw your way out of the Slough of Despond.

I realize that this does not sound helpful or reassuring. So here are some things to consider:

  1. Why are you doing this writing thing, anyway?

No, don’t start with the easy, flip answer. Dig for the real one, and be honest with yourself. I doubt that many long-time readers of this blog are mainly in it for the status or the fame or the money (ha!), but if there happens to be someone for whom that is their primary motivation, I recommend that they sell everything they own, move to Los Angeles, and try to become a movie star. Their chances of getting what they really want are a whole lot better that way.

That leaves everybody else. There are still lots of different reasons for writing, though, and it can help to know which one is yours and how it fits with your other motivations. (And you have other motivations, or you wouldn’t be asking this question.)

Me, I tell stories. I’m fortunate enough to be able to make a living from it, but if I couldn’t, I’d still be telling stories to somebody, even if it was just my cats. I write them down in order to clear out my head so more stories can come in without making my brain explode. I try to write them well because a) I think my stories deserve the best and b) I am a horrible perfectionist about everything.

That’s why I write. It doesn’t have anything to do with selling, please note.

  1. So why are you trying to break into publishing?

There are a bunch of possible reasons for this one, too, but the thing to notice is that this is where the status and fame and money parts come in, and also success/failure. If they didn’t, Tiana’s nice analogy wouldn’t strike that resonant chord that it does in all of us (yes, me, too). From a rational perspective, publishing has a lot of advantages in terms of production, distribution, and publicity – yes, some of those advantages are less in this age of ebooks and the Internet, but a lot of them are still there to at least some extent. But you almost never hear writers talk about publishers in terms of what they can do for a book that the writer can’t, which leads me to the obvious conclusion that most writers are motivated by something else in this regard.

The important thing here is that unless you are one of those people who really ought to go to Los Angeles and get into movies, breaking into publishing is not why you write. It is secondary. This is useful to remember when one is facing a string of publishing setbacks.

  1. How will you know when you are a success as a writer?

Many of the writers I’ve known never think much about this part. The publishing system has all sorts of ways of measuring how writers “succeed” or “fail” – size of advance, sales, reviews, movie deals, awards, bestseller lists, critical acclaim (which is not quite the same as reviews), length of time in print. And, of course, whether you can “break in” and be bought by a traditional Big New York Publishing House in the first place.

Unfortunately, none of these things is universally recognized as the measure of success as a writer. You pretty much have to decide for yourself what “success” means – a six figure advance, even if the sales tank and the reviews are terrible? Great reviews, even if the advance was miniscule and the sales mediocre? A movie option, even if the movie is never made? Huge, bestseller-level sales even if the critics pan the book and the movies won’t touch it?

I’ve watched a number of writers come to grief because they never stopped to think past “I want to get published” as their criteria for “success as a writer,” with the result that even after they sold and had solid mid-list careers, they were never happy with what they had. Nobody ever gets it all – the advances, the sales and bestseller lists, the movies and the awards and critical acclaim. There’s always a piece missing, and if you don’t know how you define writing success, odds are good that you’ll be unhappy because you’ve focused on what you haven’t got instead of what you’ve achieved. Others will congratulate you on your bestselling book, and you’ll glower because the movie option fell through, or you won’t enjoy the critical acclaim because the sales weren’t all that you expected.

The real trick is that you do not have to use any of these metrics to define your success. You get to decide. I define “success” as writing a book that is close to the story I envisioned, written to the absolute best of my ability. Consequently, I have written books that sold well but which I am not happy with (there’s a flaw that only I can see) and books that I am extremely happy with in spite of the negative reviews they occasioned. It doesn’t make me happy with the bad reviews, but it keeps them in perspective. Actually, I rarely read reviews of any kind – I don’t see the point. I can’t do anything to fix whatever they think is wrong with the book, because by then it’s in print, and if they like it, well, that’s lovely, but so is a day at the beach. I’m not going to get exercised about it.

The other thing I do is compartmentalize. Writing books is what I do, and I would do it whether or not I got them published. Getting published is my career and my business, and I have to pay attention to it, but it’s a different sort of attention, and how my business is doing does not reflect on my worth as a person or my success as a writer. It’s a completely different thing.

  1. Why are you doing this writing thing, anyway?

    I can’t not. Even in the midst of an emotional crisis (and there’s a doozy right now), the stories are still churning around in my brain. Writing them down is the only way to avoid a sort of mental gangrene.

    So why are you trying to break into publishing?

    Because stories want to be read. And professional publication is the best route to the most readers that I know of.

    (Not that I’d mind getting paid for this stuff, too. But that’s not the main reason.)

    How will you know when you are a success as a writer?

    Okay, you got me. I’ll admit, my first thought was “when I make a living at it.” Not an extravagant living, mind; enough to pay the bills would be great. And my second thought was “having some people (who don’t know me) who read my stuff and like it enough to want more.”

    But I like your definition of success a lot better. That really is the point of the whole exercise. I think I will try to keep that in mind as I send out the eleventy-billionth query letter or boomerang the next rejected story out to another magazine.

  2. “The other thing I do is compartmentalize. Writing books is what I do, and I would do it whether or not I got them published. Getting published is my career and my business, and I have to pay attention to it, but it’s a different sort of attention, and how my business is doing does not reflect on my worth as a person or my success as a writer. It’s a completely different thing.”

    I think I need to put that on my mirror to read every day or something! Everything about publishing is subjective, which makes it hard for us writers who might be a bit more emotional than some types of people. But it helps to get some perspective and know that publishing is different than writing. I don’t think I could stop writing if I tried. Thanks for putting it like this. It helps to know I’m not alone in feeling this way sometimes. I’ll definitely work on compartmentalizing things.

  3. I write to get the ideas out of my head and onto the paper.

    But publishing does help provide some reassurance that it’s not just a lot of egotistical blathering.

  4. I write because I want more of the kinds of stories I try to write to be out there for readers. Hardly anyone else writes those kinds of stories, so I have to write them myself.

    I want to be published because a good publisher will make it easier for readers to find my stories, than if I just threw them on the Great Internet Slush Pile. (Although I’m less certain of this than I once was.)

    I’ll consider myself successful if I can confirm that there are lots of readers out there who want the kinds of stories that I try to write, and who like my version of those stories well enough to actually pay money to read them.

    Another form of success, from my point of view, would be if others like my stories well enough to write imitations or fanfic.

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