Friday, April 20, 2018

From Me to You: Hard Truths

In the same week, I gave a presentation at CSUN about how to submit your work, and I got into a conversation about what to expect when you're submitting your work. Both of these situations made me realize that I've left something important out of the From Me to You series: hard truths. That is, the parts of the writing life that just suck and are painful to internalize, and that you can either learn about on your own over many annoying years, or that you can listen to crusty old me about today.

Elmore Leonard 

The conversation gave me the opportunity to talk about how long it takes to get accepted or rejected, how much you can expect to get paid for your short stories (pause for laughter), and the other potential ways to write for actual money.

On timing: Be patient, and be prepared to wait a long time before you see results. It can take years to build a portfolio of published work that will impress others. I got my first work out in public in 2006 and I only began getting real traction last year. Getting work accepted quickly is not necessarily the way to build a decent portfolio, either. The best publications (the New Yorker, AGNI, VQR, StoryQuarterly, etc.) take many months, six or more, to accept or reject. Publications that go through submissions quickly are either not very competitive, so their inbox traffic is low, or they don't read your work carefully.

On pay: For the most part, fiction writing does not pay, period. Even established novelists usually have day jobs (usually teaching, if they have MFAs). Genre novelists (sci-fi, fantasy, romance) do a little better, moneywise, but they have to be incredibly prolific and they, too, have to spend years in apprenticeship. Creative nonfiction writing is the same way, although personal essays, when written for the right markets, can pay. It depends on the kind of writing. Certain websites will pay for short personal essays, but if you don't have essays that fit their parameters, you won't have a lot of luck. They, too, require pitching and persistence, but I've found it easier to break in with nonfiction essays than short stories.

On self-publishing: If you are a gifted marketer and you write the right kind of book, you can make income on self-publishing, but again, you have to be prolific and able to sell yourself and your work basically nonstop. The people who've hit it big with books and/or self-publishing were usually lucky. If you don't do self-publishing, you're going to get dozens of rejections for every acceptance, and even those acceptances will not pay much at first--again, unless you're very gifted or very lucky.

On writing for money: The main ways to make money as a writer are copywriting and ghostwriting. Copywriting means that you are writing for companies, to their specs, either writing marketing copy or short factual articles for their blogs (so, marketing copy). Jobs like this are available on sites like Upwork, Flexjobs, and other freelancer job sites. Ghostwriting entails writing someone else's work for them, or guiding them through the process of writing that work, and getting money but often no credit for it. Such work varies wildly and I don't know a lot about it. There are also more specialized markets like technical writing, but those are difficult to break into.

Editing is a different story. You can either get a steady job as an editor (hard to come by), or you can start by editing the work of friends. After they get their work published, you can build a website or other marketing materials noting their success and a quote from them about how essential you were to it. I worked as a copy editor for three years and edited other kinds of things, too, and I am still trying to find clients to edit for. But then I am a very poor marketer.

In sum: This vocation is a slog, poorly paid and insanely competitive and discouraging. You've got to do it for love, not money, or you shouldn't do it at all. It's unfair, of course; writing short stories is incredibly hard, and copywriting is comparatively easy, but the former does not pay and the latter does. That's it.

When I gave my presentation on submitting, I said something about 8 to 14 months for some publications to get back to you, and there were soft noises of disbelief all around the room. I'm not exaggerating. This is what my submissions tracker looks like right now:

I deleted the column that shows the magazines' names. I'm sorry the quality is so crappy, but blame it on Blogger. A couple of these are book manuscripts and a couple more are contest entries, but mostly they are regular submissions. The first number column, "Days Out", is the number of days since I submitted the piece. The second number column is the average amount of time it takes the publication to respond, according to other writers who use Duotrope and have entered their statistics. The third column is the estimated response time offered by the publication itself ("we should get back to you within six months") (clearly this estimate is often inaccurate).

I hope these numbers speak for themselves. It takes months. It takes forever. Don't hold your breath; keep writing, and submit a bunch of things at the same time. Recently I saw an acceptance for another writer on Duotrope from a highly regarded magazine, and the response time was 337 days. Is it worth waiting that long for your story to get published? Depends on the publication, and on you. But walk into any submission with your eyes open, ready to be patient.

So, if you stick it out, how long does it take to find success? It varies, as success in every career does, but be prepared for it to take ten years. That seems like a decent average, among writers I have studied, for how much time you can expect to spend honing your craft and getting rejected and trying to get your name known. If you find this amount of time discouraging, remember: the next ten years are going to pass anyway, so make them your apprenticeship instead of giving up.

Of course, success is going to look different to you than it does to me. Decide what matters to you and strive for it. And do allow for what matters to change over time. I told my friend Kristi, whom I've only known for about a year, that in my early 20s it was my greatest ambition to write delicious, trashy V.C. Andrews novels, and to take over as her ghostwriter from the man who's been doing that job since she died. Kristi marveled at that, since she knows only what my writing looks like now. I took a moment to marvel, too. My writing trajectory has changed radically. But I'm still writing.

If you've only read Flowers, pick up My Sweet Audrina. It's fuuuuuuuuuuucked.
There are no guarantees for writers, except that writing out of personal need/inspiration/curiosity will sustain you more deeply than writing for external reward. Feeling despair about the contrast between what you think of your work and what the world thinks of your work is wasted energy. Just keep doing it. Put away your old stories and write new ones. The new ones will be better by virtue of having written the old ones.

That's another hard truth: you have to throw a lot of work away. Many big-deal writers seem to discard most of what they write; they write scenes a dozen different ways before settling on one, they write their full-length memoir four or five times over from scratch; they write exercises and daily pages that don't go anywhere, not even cannibalized for other work. I used to think this was insane, but now--even though it doesn't resemble my own practice--I understand how it happens. The tendency of a writer in the early years is to think that all written work is worth saving, but it's just not true.

My hack for the heartbreak of throwing work away is to pretend I'm going to retool a bad story once it's not so fresh in my mind. If I insist this to myself hard enough, if I put the draft in a folder labeled "Fix" intead of "Trash," then I don't feel bad and I can move on to new, better work. When I go back to those stories a couple of years later, I'm shocked that I ever thought they were worth writing or rewriting. I remember the value of the idea vividly, but the prose I wrote around the idea is dreadful.

I say often that I've written five novels and four of them are bad. That's a loose truth, because the strict truth is complicated.
  • First novel - V.C. Andrews knockoff. Probably not very good, but a total blast to write. I self-published it and I shouldn't have. 70,000 words. Trunked. 
  • Two novellas - ghost story novella and sci-fi novella. I didn't have the skill to make the ghost story novella work, and the sentences in the SF novella are so bad that I'd need to start over from scratch to fix it, which isn't really worth it, because it's the same idea as Children of Men (which came out just after I finished writing). 23,000 words each. Trunked. 
  • Second novel - Greenland novel. I researched and worked insanely hard on this book, and it's just not good. Wanting to go back and fix it isn't just lip service for this project, because it's really not like any other book I've read, but fixing it will be easily as much work as writing it was, and that idea makes me so sad. What I'd really like to do is hand it off to a decent genre writer and have them rewrite it so it works. I can't decide whether this would hurt more or less than having it sit inert in my hard drive. 98,000 words. Trunked. 
  • Third novel - horror novel. I really fucking like this book. I pitched it to an agent in person at a conference, and she rejected it with a devastating five-page letter written by her assistant. This was in 2012 and I still haven't figured out what to do with the book. I don't know if it's good or bad. When I reread it, I still liked it, and had no cringey desire to rewrite. 91,000 words. Trunked with reservations. 
  • Fourth novel - urban fantasy novel. Shopping it, because it's good. 97,000 words. 
  • Third novella - secret project. Shopping it. 18,000 words. 
That's 420,000 words, 305,000 of which are probably never going to be published. And that doesn't even count the many terrible short stories I've written (at least enough for a collection, so another 80,000 or more), and the actually-decent essays and stories that have gone out or are going out at present (probably another 40,000).

In case I have not made it clear: be prepared to write a lot and throw it away.

hooray, floating cleaning-related objects

One final thing I'd like to say in the neighborhood of hard truths: getting published will not solve your problems. I've made it clear that it won't make you any money, and that it's really hard to get your work accepted in the first place (or have I? have I talked about the number of rejections I've had? per Duotrope, 295 of them [against 31 acceptances, two of which fell through], which does not include the dozens of agent and book rejections, the dozens of pitch rejections or nonresponses, the contest entries I paid for and got nothing out of. YOU WILL GET REJECTED A BUNCH. IT'S OKAY). But even if your work does get accepted, you don't suddenly have a feeling of legitimacy, or permission, or equanimity, about the writing path. You just worry about the next thing.

I know more than a few writers who've had a debut book published and it didn't do as well as the press expected it to, so they haven't been able to sell a second book. That's a legitimate problem with selling a first book, and there's no way to protect against it. I know writers who've had work published in big-deal publications and have said it only made them more anxious that they wouldn't ever top that achievement. Being happy with your achievements, if you're a minimally ambitious person, is potentially more difficult than attaining those achievements.

Or, as Biggie puts it,

I wish getting published was like climbing a mountain where there's a gondola lift on the other side, and you can ride down in style, tranquility, and warmth after a long, hard, rewarding climb. But it's not like that. The way down is just as perilous as the way up. The challenges are different, but equally potent.

So be prepared. Gird yourself for the trip. There's amazing stuff to see along the way, but not all of it will be easy or fun (or hard or obnoxious; some parts will be easy and fun). Most importantly, do it for you, not for them. Talking to people about my work after it's been published is my favorite part of this vocation, but it's also the scarcest part, and I must contort myself many different ways to get there. Most commonly I sit at my computer, eyes aching, trying to make sense of myself. If that weren't satisfying on its own, I would have stopped doing it years ago. 

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