Monday, March 21, 2011

My Writing Perception vs. Writing Reality

It's been nearly a year since I started taking writing seriously. I mean, uber-seriously.

You see, when I first started, I had a few ideas for books, jotted down those ideas, and then wrote the books.



I thought I was ready to query agents with "brilliant" query letters I'd spent all of five minutes writing. I thought my stories so unique, so ingenious that of course someone would want to read them. I'm that talented. I'm that special.

Then I discovered something.

The form rejection.

A sampling:
"After careful consideration, we feel this is not the right fit for our agency"

"Please remember that publishing is a subjective business and not everyone who reads the work will share the same opinion"

"Please understand the fiction market is extremely tight right now and I can only take on projects I believe I can sell"
In my eagerness to get my work out there, I failed to do my research. I failed to understand, at least in part, the business at hand. I don't claim to know any secrets about publishing--if I did, I wouldn't take the time to blog or read agents' or other authors' blogs--but at the beginning, I had a complete lack of understanding about anything.

So, I spent a lot of time learning. I found it frustrating...the writer who wanted to write spent more time reading about writing than actually putting down words or working on revisions. This was a necessary undertaking, however. As I started taking my writing more seriously, I learned more about the business side and the craft part of it. You'll find many writers/bloggers who are infinitely better authorities on all this (a few of them are on my blogroll on the right side of the page), but I thought I'd share what I've discovered in the last year or so.

Perception: Your writing is brilliant and anyone who reads it will immediately recognize your clearly-apparent brilliance.

Reality: There is nothing wrong with having confidence in your writing. However, you are not brilliant. You will know this when you receive various form rejections about your novel/memoir/story. Few of these will have any type of personalization; most will be cold, stock replies that provide no guidance whatsoever.

Perception: You can churn out a compelling query letter in five minutes.

Reality: Query letters are tricky. You have to give agents/editors a taste of what you're offering, and do it in a way that makes them thirst for more. Distilling tens of thousands--or in some cases, hundreds of thousands--of words into an easily digestible, bite-size query tablet takes time, patience, and several drafts. You'll probably lose your mind while trying to pound out the "perfect query," but the insanity will pay off in the end.

Perception: All you have to do is check your first draft for spelling and grammar. After that, you're all set.

Reality: First drafts are drivel. Pure, absolute drivel. No matter how great you think your first draft is, it is exponentially more putrid than that. Your initial attempt will have some admirable qualities, but the secret to writing isn't writing; it's revising. Think of it as a sculpture; you've got to get the nose just right, which takes time and patience. A good revision requires a healthy dose of red ink, a good chunk of re-arranging, a triple check in the Plot Hole 3000, and a few passes through the Character Consistency-O-Tron. Hammer the prose, smooth it out, hammer it, smooth it out, and then hammer it again.

Perception: You're so brilliant, your acceptance rate will fall in the 90-percent range. Because you were an A-student in school, and nothing less will do.

Reality: I don't have any hard and fast numbers for this, but if you manage a 90% acceptance rate, please bequeath your magic hat to me before you expire. Anecdotal evidence from agents' blogs and sites like Duotrope's Digest and Query Tracker puts rejection rates somewhere in the 90%-95% range. It all depends on whether you're querying a book or submitting a short story, of course. It also depends on which market you're targeting. But the truth is undeniable: rejection is a major part of being a writer. It doesn't mean your work is terrible, it doesn't mean you can't write. It can, however, mean a project isn't right for a certain agent/market or your work hasn't quite reached its full potential.

Perception: Since the submission process is so easy, the response time will be just as quick!

Reality: Oh, man. You know, technology is great for writers. We no longer have to print out our stories, put them into envelopes, and mail them out. Since I've been at this for a relatively short time, I've never mailed a manuscript. I have done everything over email. It's painfully easy. Ah-HA! It's easy for me, which means it's easy for you, which in turn means it's easy for everyone else. I imagine agents' and editors' email inboxes are bombarded with a never-ending assault of submitted queries and stories. It takes me ten seconds to send something, so it should take ten seconds for the recipient to reply. Except, hundreds (more likely thousands) of people are doing the same thing! It takes more than ten seconds to read through a single submission (or at least to give it serious consideration). So all those submissions go to someone who has to read through them and pick the cream of the crop. We're talking weeks or months here.

Perception: You can do it alone.

Reality: You can't. There may be some out there skilled enough to revise their own writing, but the reality is most of us grow too close to our work. We fall so in love with a phrase or a plot twist or a character that we can't see the phrase is asinine or the plot twist doesn't fit the theme or the character actually is Han Solo (i.e., so similar to an established character that it falls outside of "homage" and drifts into "hey, dude, you totally ripped that off from someone else"). You need someone to read your work. You need someone who isn't your friend--and if they are your friend, they need to be one of those rare "they can point out when you're being a jerk and make you realize the error of your ways" types. This is my biggest personal failing...I need to discover a community of like-minded writers to bounce ideas off and critique my work (and vice versa). Writing can be a lonely profession and some of us relish our privacy, but stories are meant to be read...not locked away in a trunk or hidden on a hard drive. You owe it to yourself to let other skilled craftsmen and craftswomen take a whack at it.

Perception: You'll never make it.

Reality: Let us collectively spit in the face of this one. As the rejections pile up, you begin to feel as if you're wasting your time. As long as you have a passion for what you're doing, I assure you, you're not. "Making it" is a nebulous phrase anyway. It depends on your goals. Maybe "making it" is placing a story in a high-profile lit journal. Maybe it means you're selling 100+ ebooks a month. Maybe it's seeing your book in a Borders store (well...let's say Barnes & Noble, right?). "Making it" varies from individual to individual, and you must measure success by your own standards. Write because you love it, be persistent, and good things will happen.

Perception: You can learn everything you need on the internet.

Reality: The internet remains a terrific source for finding vital information, but it can also be a cold, detached place. I've learned a great deal about writing & publishing on the 'net (um...does anyone actually use that phrase these days?). But I think every author, regardless of level, needs to attend a writing conference somewhere. If you live in the Midwest, I highly recommend (UNSOLICITED PLUG ALERT!) the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University. I went last summer and interacted with other writers, had the opportunity to pitch my work, and got positive feedback on a query letter for one of my projects.

Perception: Books belong on shelves, not on Cylon technology. Ebooks? A fad.

Reality: Some authors, J.A. Konrath and (obligatory mention!) Amanda Hocking come to mind, but this "ebook thing" is catching on. Opinions vary greatly on what this means for the publishing industry--and by "vary greatly," I mean it's either "traditional publishing is dead!" or "ebooks are destroying writing!"--but electronic distribution can't be ignored like it was a year or two ago. Learning about this part of the industry should be an essential part of your writing journey. If that means buying a Kindle, buy a Kindle. If that means reading about a Kindle, read about it. Or you can always attend a writing conference, where ebooks and digital distribution will undoubtedly pop up.

Perception: Twitter is a useless, faceless platform that perverts the English language and caters only to the techno-savvy.

Reality: I used to hate Twitter. I mean really hate it. I have learned, however, that it is actually a brilliant tool. Yes, can use it to market, but more importantly, it connects you with other writers. There are countless agents, authors, editors, and publications with Twitter accounts. You can sit back and observe or dive in and interact. Just take some time to learn the basics and lingo. Retweet good stuff and contribute great content. The followers will come.

What about you? What "dead-wrong" perceptions did you have about writing? How did you learn your lesson?

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