05 February 2008

the four stages to a writing career

I've discovered the four steps to success, but like in AA, they're more about realization than actualization. These are stop-and-do-not-collect-$200 turns. Most of us, most of YOU, readers of this blog and submitters to our magazine, have passed the first realization, which is:

1. I can't write a book/story/article just because I went to school, have a decent command of the language, and I read.

Every step includes the realization that this is harder than it looks. But at no time is it more overwhelming than at this stop. It's so potent that many writers never get past this stage. Sometimes it's because they never quite reach it, having given their work only to people who will heartily approve of it. But more often it's because they run up against a wall of rejection and get the glimmer of understanding that the wall is always there.

But, real writers, the ones who are determined to jump off the artistic cliff, generally take a turn up De-Nile River and then run aground on the second realization:

2. I've make strides in my craft because I've pleased someone who knows real writing--in other words, someone who's not my mother, my spouse, or my administrative assistant. But, (big one) it's still not good enough. I can't sell a story to save my life, and at this point, that may very well be the goal because every rejection feels like another silver bullet in a werewolf hunter's pistol clip.

First credits are often the toughest to attain, and no, that's not because we editors scour your cover letters and automatically take those with a pro sale under their belt. (In fact, one of our editors does not read cover letters at all, so there. That's not to say you can blow it off, though, because I call the lack of a cover letter an instant striiiiike one.) A first sale means several things, mostly that the stars were in alignment, all the hosts of hell were distracted from tormenting writers by those pesky garage bands, and the world turned at just the right speed to land your work on the right editor's desk at the right time. But, and it's another big one, it also means that your craft has reached a level worthy of consideration. It means your writing is not in the way of your story, and also that you had something worthwhile and original to say. Yea, you're on your way.

But then there is the second sale. Yeah, you thought the first one was tough. Or, you might make a quick second, even third sale, even ten sales. Regardless, every writer goes through:

3. The Dreaded Dry Spell.

This shape-changer can take many forms, but its favorite is the Rejected Novel. This time it may take years for the right stars to pause overhead and hellish hosts to take a breather. It might be fun to speculate that this is much different than the other stages, but at its heart it's the same evil creature. This is when desperation, hatred for the industry, and real self-doubt sets in. You thought the first sale was tough...but dang it! You know you can write. Certain someone(s) have bought your work. But it still drags on. Most writers do not make it past this stage, I'm afraid. This is no springtime day hike. This is lost in avalanche country with a broken snowboard binding and storm clouds overhead. This is when the claws extend, nasty things are said, and writers approach hungover editors in conference hotel elevators. But perservere. Keep writing. Submit. Submit. Submit. Submit. Submit. Because if you do, if you keep at it, if you never give up, you might just reach stage:

4. Gulp. Real Sale(s).

Congratulations. You made it--by way of regular short story sales or a novel sale. But. But. I know a lot of established authors, and security is still a slippery thing. You'd be surprised how many people get a huge contract and after, or instead , the celebration party, they sit down at their desks and think:


So, why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves though it? For the love? For the money? Ha!

It's because we must, because we have no choice. Writing is an addiction that begets more writing. It's the most fun you can have for almost free on a Saturday night, and at every stage it's just beginning. Writing is, at its purest form, hope.


lesleylsmith said...

Nice post, Bets, but I have to say, kind of a downer! :( Do you need someone to buy you a beer? :)
I, personally, think the first sale is the toughest. I also think I was able to make my first "real" sale because I was VERY familiar with the publication (I've been a subscriber for like a quarter century!).
I also have to say, so many of the authors who submit to us are SO close to writing a wonderful story but they just aren't quite there. They really need a critique group to ask questions like: why is the young vampire dying at the same time as the old vampire?
So, if you are reading this and you are a writer without a critique group: GET ONE!

David E. Hughes said...

I agree this is a great post--very insightful.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Well, I did mean it to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, too, but thanks, guys.

Anonymous said...

Another round of kudos from me, Bets. Excellent, provocative post!

I also agree with Lesley: many writers would benefit from a critique group. It may be hard to take at first, but smart writers know that honest, insightful commentary can only help to improve their work.

J. R. Tomlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. R. Tomlin said...

Deleted my previous post because of a particularly dumb looking typo. Sorry.

What I wanted to say was:

I only KIND of agree on the critique group. At a certain point in your career, early on, I do think it can help. But it can also hurt--if you get the wrong advise in the wrong group and many writers do.

I have to question if another writer just as ignorant as yourself gives you advise, how likely is it to be right? And there is the danger (and it does happen--I've seen it) of writers tearing down other writers out of pure jealousy.

So, I'd say you need to not just find a writers group, but find a GOOD writers group, one with writers with some experience.

And I also believe that there comes a point when writers are past stage 1 or 2 when they need to learn to judge their own work.