A Guest Post by James Wilson
A few months ago, I decided to quit writing. It wasn’t the first time. I hope it’s the last.
While I wasn’t writing I had a great time. I worked on my boat, I took music lessons, and I read books for enjoyment.
Then one day I went back to work.
I’d like to say my turnaround was due to a break in a long spell of no sales, but that wouldn’t be true. The sale that broke the drought was only my excuse.
It was, however, a marvelous excuse.
Years ago, I wrote a novel in which one of the characters makes up conversations. One of them was between a father and a son about worm farming.
The riff turned into a short story.
One day, I noticed a market listing for an anthology on Ralan’s Webstravaganza (http://www.ralan.com/). I submitted the story.
The editors liked it, but they suggested a change to tie it in more tightly with their theme: the end of the world.
I gladly made the change – on spec. This is important.
They accepted the story.
Time marched on, and the anthology came out in e-book and POD formats. The story is “Pa’s Worm Farm and the Greenie Scouts” by Jamie McNabb, in TERMINAL EARTH published by Pound Lit Press.
I am here to tell you that there is something very, very special about seeing a book you have a part in treated seriously.
I immediately sent thank-you notes to the people who had helped me develop my craft and who had put up with me over the past while.
The whole experience taught, or re-taught, me several things. They begin with those legendary million words.
Established writers often tell wannabes that it takes finishing a million words to learn how to write commercial fiction. Non-established writers, of which I am one, think of those million words as the apprenticeship needed to learn how to shape a story and get it onto the page. That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.
The whole truth begins with what it takes to finish a million words.
Using a few realistic assumptions about writing speed, it takes about nine or ten fulltime years to turn out a million words. To allow for a job, a marriage, distractions, and/or raising children, you ought to double or triple the time. That means as much as thirty calendar years, possibly more, may go into finishing those million words.
I am at the 500,000-word mark, and have published 30,000 of those words. I can now say without too much fear of contradiction, that if you want to finish those million words, that is, to become a professional writer, then–Here comes the BIG secret! Ready? There’ll be a test later!–you’ll have to finish those million words.
There’s no mystery here. You have to learn how to put the words on the page, how to use rejection to support your work, how to guard your working time, and how to behave as though you are working against a tight deadline.
How much of this have I leaned?
Some, but not enough.
Here’s another tip: rejection is your friend.
I don’t believe it, either; but it’s true.
Granted, it’s not the bosom buddy that the right acceptance at the right time can be, but it remains a friend. And over the long run, it’s often a better friend than acceptance.
Regular rejection proves that you have established a submission/response cycle. This cycle is the fundamental rhythm by which professional writers live. It doesn’t matter whether the pieces sell or not. What matters is making the cycle an integral part of your working life.
Most rejections are form letters. “Dear Author . . .” However, some rejections are pure gold, like the one I initially received from the editors of TERMINAL EARTH. These golden rejections contain specific suggestions for improvement. Needs tightening. The magical element should appear on the first page. We laughed ourselves silly, but we aren’t the right market.
If appropriate, act on what they’ve told you. Above all, thank the editor for commenting. When appropriate, ask if he/she would be willing to consider a rewrite based on his/her critique.
I haven’t sold mountains of work, but most of what I have sold, I’ve sold because some very generous editors took the time to critique and reconsider. Win or lose, thank them!
It’s been said until we’re sick of hearing it: now is a great time to be a writer. It’s true. Now is also a great time to break in.
The personal computer and the Internet have changed the game. There are more markets now than at any time in the recent past. Electronic publishing is shoving aside the twin scourges of inventory-maintenance cost and inventory taxation, and with them, many of the live-or-die aspects of “shelf life”. Backlist books are becoming as available as frontlist books.
The midlist and the pulps, where fledgling writers used to learn the craft and build their followings, are roaring back in electronic form.
Coaching, critique groups, market lists, and references are available online. Discovering the name of Julius Caesar’s horse is a matter of seconds, rather than an entire afternoon.
So, if everything is so cockeyed rosy, why did I drop out of the scenario?
I didn’t like rejection, so I didn’t send in my work.
I didn’t like the grind of working, reworking, and reworking again, and of never, ever knowing for sure whether or not the piece was finally right, so I quit.
I got fed up with a market that apparently has no room for anything that doesn’t feature teenage, horny, mutant, ninja vampires, or heroic women recovering from heroic traumas, or heroic men who never seem to come anywhere near posttraumatic stress or having something better to do than “save the world.”
I got fed up with being told that there are “no rules,” and then being expected to intuit what the rules are and how to obey them to the letter.
Fed up, I say. So I quit.
Notice the pronoun: I.
In other words, I let my precious feelings get in the way.
Well, so there I was, fed up with writing and having a great time.
Why, then, did I go back to work?
Because my temper tantrum finally burned itself out. Because by buying my story for their anthology–I did mention it, didn’t I?–the editors at Pound Lit Press told me I was on the right track and to keep at it. Because I couldn’t endure the prospect of spending the rest of my life not writing.
Here’s the close.
There’s a truism in management circles: ninety percent of the work is done in the last ten percent of the time. The way I figure it, at 500,000 words finished, I’ve learned between five and six percent of what I need to know to sort-of-kind-of enter the ranks of professional writers.
How far along are you?
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