Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Getting published: Live your own writing life

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a woman who expressed her frustration over the fact that she has been writing for twenty years and her work has yet to receive an interested nibble from a publisher. She said she keeps asking, "Why, God?" She mentioned having read about my success, which she appears to believe came easily--and perhaps faster than was fair to other hopeful writers. It was clear that she believes her own success to be long overdue.

I get a lot of e-mails from people who are working towards publication, and I'm continually amazed by the number of writers who imply that their success is "overdue." They seem to think that after writing for a number of years and completing several manuscripts, the average writer deserves to be published.

Getting published isn't achieved by taking a number and then working hard while you patiently wait your turn. Getting published isn't about averages; it's about you. If Author A sells her first manuscript and Author B sells her twentieth, that means nothing to you. Getting published has nothing to do with how long you've been writing or how hard you've been trying or how badly you want it. It's not even about how good you are. It's about finding a publisher who wants to buy what you're written.

We've all seen books that didn't deserve to be published. And we all know wildly talented writers who just can't find buyers for their novels. It's tempting for a very good but unpublished writer to look at an untalented but published writer and think: unfair. But publishers aren't concerned about being "fair" to everyone on the playground. Writing may be an art, but publishing is definitely a business. So unless you can make an editor believe your novel will make money for her publishing house, you won't sell it, no matter how brilliant it is.

No, I'm not saying that getting published is a crap shoot. If you start with some talent, learn all you can, work hard, and write to a specific market, you'll probably sell at some point. In the meantime, while positive thinking and having a fire in your belly aren't necessary for publication, they will keep you writing, so go ahead and get yourself stirred up. Just forget about calculating the odds and stop studying the timelines of other writers' careers. This is your writing life, and it's as unique as your own fingerprints. Celebrate that.

9 comments:

Kristin said...

I think part of the frustration for an unpublished writer lies in the fact that good writing is not all you need. Some part of us wants to believe that our words will shine more than the story somehow.

But publishers are looking for new and fresh, something different. And if you don't have that something different, you are just part of the other thousands of good writers out there with mediocre ideas.

It's definitely hard to watch other writers succeed around you who may have less writing experience. Or find out a book went to auction that you feel is not all that great...I've been there.

But I always go back to my own writing and my own voice. Keep plugging away at stories I love and ideas I love. How can I do anything else?

Either someday my writing will improve so much that it comes to the top of the heap, or I will hit upon the right plot at the right time and get it to the right person. Lots of things have to coincide in order to succeed in this tough industry...

Brenda Coulter said...

Kristin, you're so right.

Janny said...

I'll never forget being at one of my first RWA conferences and seeing a workshop on the schedule that was titled, "What if I've been writing for five years and haven't published yet?"

And I thought "Five years? You mean I'm supposed to be concerned about five YEARS? Are they KIDDING?"

(At that time, I'd probably been seriously writing for at least ten.)

It's things like that that, unfortunately, put a certain "bug" of expectation in our heads. It's why to this day I don't believe the RWA first-sale accounts that read, "This is ______(first time author)'s first completed manuscript."

Yeah, right, baby. Sure. Maybe it's the first one she actually pulled out of the drawer/box/space under the bed and showed anyone...which is often the case. Sometimes--more often than we realize--this so-called "first time author" is coming off a ten-year stint in public relations, or newspapers, or magazines, or some other form of written communication, where she learned how to write before she "started writing," so to speak. But unless you know that author well, and know her whole story, you'll think she just caught lightning in a bottle. And it will feel terribly unfair.

RWA's not alone in building false expectations, either. Most writing groups do that very thing, not intentionally, but just in the normal scheme of everyday news and events. "So and so got her first book contract! And after only two years! Yay!"

And once again, all the people who were happily perking along--like I was before that unfortunate workshop title popped up!--figuring they were paying their dues, that this was going to take time, yatta, yatta...start to get that still, small voice of doubt nagging at the edges of their minds.

They start to wonder if maybe there IS a secret handshake that other people know...but they don't.

They start to look around and see the success of others...others who aren't as talented as they are...others whose writing they think is lame...others who are not particularly nice people...and it's only natural to be tempted to whisper, "Why, God?"

It's a hard thing for us all to deal with, at one time or another. The only thing worse than dealing with it, however, is trying to pretend it's not there. Smiling on the outside, pretending everything is "just fine" and you're pushing toward your writing goals...when inside you're crumbling. It's nice to have someone admit out loud that sometimes this seemingly "unfair" writing life we live...can hurt.

But it's also good to remember that we can find ways to celebrate who we are, what we do, and why we do it. And when we remember that, and appreciate it, it can be more than enough.

So thanks, Brenda, for being willing to "speak these things out loud." And thanks for reminding us that just as each of us has a unique fingerprint, each of us will have a unique writing life. (Although Debbie Macomber claims she no longer has a discernible fingerprint, from typing so much...but that's another subject entirely!):-)

Take care,
Janny

Brenda Coulter said...

I don't believe the RWA first-sale accounts that read, "This is ______(first time author)'s first completed manuscript."

Yeah, right, baby. Sure. Maybe it's the first one she actually pulled out of the drawer/box/space under the bed and showed anyone...which is often the case. Sometimes--more often than we realize--this so-called "first time author" is coming off a ten-year stint in public relations, or newspapers, or magazines, or some other form of written communication, where she learned how to write before she "started writing," so to speak.


Uh-oh. Time to set Janny straight.
;-)

My first book, Finding Hope, was my first completed manuscript--and I sold it on the first try, without any revisions (either before or after signing the contract). I began writing at the end of 2000, but I ditched that unfinished story when my very first query letter was rejected. I started another story, queried when it was complete, and in September 2001, less than ten months after I decided to try writing a novel, the publisher was interested.

I had just over a year of college under my belt and had been a fulltime homemaker for nearly two decades. I had no writing experience, but I was a great reader with a knack for putting sentences together. (My family members recognized that and always used to ask me to write their tricky business letters.) I was very surprised to discover my gift for storytelling.

I suppose my experience is a little unusual, but the point of my post (and I know you got this, Janny) is that comparing one person's experience to another's can't give us any meaningful picture of how hard it is to write and how long it might take to get published.

I have said this before, but I'll say it again, even though I know (and this really frustrates me) that some people still won't believe it: Getting published was not the greatest thing that has happened to me as a writer. The greatest thrill of my writing life, hands down, was the day I finished my first manuscript and sat down to read it and cried because I just couldn't believe how good it was. On that day, I began thinking of myself as a writer. Not an "aspiring" writer and not a "prepublished" writer, but a full-fledged one. I had actually written a novel. And yeah, okay, it was unpublished, but I knew it was good enough to be published.

Getting The Call on that first book was a wonderful experience, but it didn't make me any more of a writer than I already was.

Adam "Luke" Luther said...

Thanks for the inspiration. Why is publishing the almighty novel "key" in confirmation you're a good writer?

I recently sent a 900 word count article to my church's editor for publication, and although she will edit it quite considerably she was moved by it. Isn't that the goal? I will receive no compensation for the piece, but know that it will touch many hearts.

Incidentaly, I must have wept 4 or 5 times while I was writing it.

I'm starting with baby steps, like a toddler, before I tackle my novel.

Brenda Coulter said...

Why is publishing the almighty novel "key" in confirmation you're a good writer?

Beats me, Luke. I've seen too many bad books to believe publication is any guarantee of quality.
;-)

Julie said...

Hi Brenda,
I'm over here from Julie Carobini's blog.

While I believe that God has a plan for every believing writer, that doesn't absolve us from hard work (and a good attitude).

I've written for our church's newsletter for years, written and taught at our women's ministry, and had over 40 articles published in The Bradenton Herald. It isn't easy, but I believe that if our work is covered in prayer, and we diligently work on excelling in our craft, we will be published.

Blessings to you!

Janny said...

Well, Brenda, you're the talented exception that proves the rule in getting published on the first try, so to speak. :-) I, and many others like me, tend to find such stories intimidating in our good moments and truly depressing in our bad ones.

But, yes, I did get the point of the post! I just needed to vent my particular pet peeve....

No offense meant. And none taken!

Janny

Brenda Coulter said...

Julie, I'm sorry, but I missed your comment until just now. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Janny, each of us writes and publishes at our own pace. I may have been published on the first try, but it's now five years since my first sale, and the book coming out this fall is only my third. Some people might wonder what's taking me so long to "get going," but I barely notice all of the published writers who are leapfrogging past me. I don't compare my writing journey to anybody else's. My writing life is my writing life. Try thinking that way and you might find a lot more satisfaction in being a writer.