Thursday, June 14, 2012

You're not all going to make it

At one point in 'The Gift', episode 100 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy turns to Spike and says, 'We're not all going to make it.' What she means by that is that some of her friends may die that night as they try to fend off an apocalypse. While those circumstances are dramatic, the line sometimes seems appropriate when I think about the legions of hopeful writers out there in the world.

So here's the blunt truth: you're not all going to make it. (And by 'make it' I mean 'get published', but you knew that.) The numbers alone suggest that, because there are arguably more writers than there are book-buyers in every single market around the world. And most book-buyers don't buy lots of books each year.

Does that mean you shouldn't try? Of course not. The trying is the thing. The trying is what makes you a better writer. In the great ever-shifting ratio of talent:application that is the difference between getting published and not, application is the more influential component. There are lots of talented writers out there. The ones who 'make it' are usually the ones who keep trying and learning as they go. But not everyone will. And nor should everyone expect to.

My example, for comparative purposes, is this: not all musicians expect to get a record deal, so why do all writers expect to get a publishing deal? I am yet to come across a writer who says they're doing it for their own enjoyment - they all seem to want to get published - but there are lots of musicians who do it just for the love of music (I'm speaking from personal experience). It could just be the circles I run in. But those circles are crowded with people who are constantly disappointed because they haven't been published. Some of those people - many, perhaps - will now self-publish a digital book. What's going to happen if they don't turn out to be self-publishing superstars? Statistically, most won't. So then there will be more disappointment. And this disappointment is completely preventable, because the sole cause of disappointment is expectation.

So here’s what I’d tell you if you were my friend and I was your bossy agenty friend:

Write without expectations.
Write because you love it.
Write because you have a story to tell.
Write because it makes you feel alive.
Write because that's where you're most present, in the moment, in the flow.
Don't write because you want to get published.
Don't write and then focus all of your energies on getting published. Just use some of your energies, if that’s what you want to do, and keep writing with the rest of your energies.

Getting published is a separate enterprise - it's a different undertaking altogether to writing. There are some authors who will get published because that's just where their writing falls: in the publishable stream. It doesn't make it better or worse than the writing that doesn't get published. Quite often it's just about the planets aligning for that writer at that time. When I take on an author, I have to love the writing, yes, but I also have to think hard about whether or not I can get the author published. I've rejected a lot of manuscripts that I loved, just because I didn't think I could get them published. In my ideal World of Me, where all the writing I love gets published, things would be different. But they're not. I have to live in this world. And, as Buffy also once said, this world is 'hard, and bright, and violent'.

Now, in the words of Dan Savage, 'I'm gonna get so many caaaallllls ...'


Allyse said...

Harsh but honest. I frequent some particular writer's forums and it really breaks my heart to see some wonderfully talented writers flounder without ever getting picked up - especially when they've pinned their life's ambition on it. Or worse, their - gulp - income.

(People who want to publish to GET RICH QUICK hurt my brain.)

I dislike people bringing up 'luck' when discussing why some writers get published because it sort of condescends all parties involved, but I really do agree that sometimes it's to got a smidge to do with 'the planets aligning' and pitching the right book to the right agent/publisher at the right time. All you can really do is write the best manuscript you possibly can and treat a book deal like an amazing delicious but not expected topping on the whipped ice cream of your literary masterpiece. :)

Now I'm really curious - I can't imagine being an agent with author friends! Oh, I'd live in terror of being hounded by mates for a recommendation, an introduction - "Just a little quote for the blurb, c'mon, Agent Sydney!"

Anonymous said...

What came first, the disappointed writer, or the frustrated agent?

skink said...

I attended a workshop at a writers' festival entitled 'Getting Published'

It was expensive, because you could submit your synopsis and sample chapter and have it assessed by the commissioning editor running the course.
At the start of the session she stood up at the front of the auditorium and said: 'Look, there's fifty of you here. You couldn't really expect me to read all that, could you? I'm very busy. And no, you can't have your money back."

When the murmur has subsided she continued:"I'm here to give you some tough love. You need to accept that nobody in this room is going to get published, the numbers are against you. You might as well just learn to love writing for its own sake."

I don't know if this was devious reverse psychology, but I completed my book, have an agent, and my manuscript is currently under consideration at a major publisher.

If, fingers crossed, it does get published, guess who's going to get the first copy?

Damsel in Distress said...

Good point! I love writing but my biggest fear us being criticized. Thanks for putting things in perspective and congratulations skink!!

Beth said...

Congrats, skink, on agent and upcoming publisher. May it be so! I appreciate this post re why people write and the 'tough love' approach that says we're not all going to be published. But in what other industry is "no response" to potential clients courteous? The attitudes of agents (and I have met some very wonderful agents) like that workshop leader push me ever closer to self-publishing. Let the dross settle!

Rick Bylina said...


I feel better now.

I write; therefore, I am a writer.

527 rejections later for my novels, I'm still writing. Someday...someday.

LarryinLA said...

I have to disagree with your premise unless a writer's goal is limited to a personal venture only. In all creative ventures that seek a public outlet there is a successful balance between talent and skill. There are many talented writers who will never get published but that is mostly because they lacked skill. Talent is innate, and can be honed, but skills can be learned. Like poker, talent is the stake you need to get in the game but whether you win or lose will be dependent on the skill with which you play. What is difficult for most people who involve themselves in the creative process of writing is the myriad of skills required. Writing is only one part of it, and while crucial, is only your table stake. There is probably a third attribute I should mention as well, brutal honesty. If can't objectively look at your work and your project than you are doomed to waste your effort.

If you intend to publish, you should set that as a goal, That means you will need to assess whether your story will resonate with readers. It means you will need to learn classic models, like the three acts, the first ten pages, the first fifty pages. You will have to learn the parts of writing, exposition, description, dialog, narrative, when to tell and when to show. These are part of a discipline that can be learned and must be balanced against a tendency to just start pecking at a keyboard.

For someone who worked in entertainment and music for nearly twenty years, I used to say you could run your car onto a crowded sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard and every third person you hit would be a guitar player. There's nothing cheaper in Hollywood than talent. True creativity is when talent is channeled and disciplined by skill and objectivity into a structure accessible to a public.

We live in an exciting time of freedom for creatives but it comes at the cost of learning how to use talent, how to find and apply those skills, including how to get in front of an audience. But all that information on how to get it done is out there, most of it for free, and the rest reasonable.

With that said, the biggest thing is, don't really commit until you can believe in yourself one hundred percent. And when you do, don't ever get up. Roll with the punches, crave criticism but make your own brutally honest decisions, always learn, and as Stephen Pressfield says in "Do The Work", always 'ship'; in short, finish.

Cruzøe said...

Brilliant advice! Great comparison to musicians.

Matthew J. Beier said...

Great post, and I completely agree -- you need to write because you love it!

That said, we now live in a world where publishing is a choice, not something to pine over for years and years. I definitely know the feeling of wanting validation from a Big Publisher, but for me, those days are gone. I chose to self-publish my novel "The Breeders" both in print and in e-book form, and the experience changed my life. Last year, I was slaving away, hoping that the effort would lead to something, and last week, I had a column printed in Publishers Weekly. It's a bit surreal.

I worked my butt off to release a product that could hold its ground next to any traditionally published book, and as a result, my love of writing has mixed with a career path that offers me absolute freedom. The biggest plus? Readers are actually liking my book. Isn't that the dream we all strive for when it comes to being published?

Of course, LarryInLA has some awesome points. Writers need to be savvy and create their own luck, or else the freedom they now have will be meaningless. There is a huge learning curve to self-publishing, but in the end, it really can complement the idea of "writing because you love it." Instead of waiting to get published and worrying if they'll ever succeed, writers can follow through with their visions, all the way to a finished product. Then, they can test their luck with the people who matter most: readers.

Not everyone will make money through self-publishing, but I can't quite see how it makes more sense to wait in the shadows for a big book deal these days. So...write because you love it, then weigh your options!

Clare Wilson said...

Thank you for this reality check. I was perusing your blog and just came across it.

Actually, I've always been afraid that getting published would tarnish my love for writing, making it more mercenary. I am sending out agent queries and such, but I think having a little wariness of the whole publishing process can safeguard a writer and keep him or her more connected to the story and less to the selling of it.

Anonymous said...

-puts up hand- I'm one of the people who writes fiction because they love writing stories, with no further goal. Every so often I think about doing something with one of them, but it's not what I'm doing it for. So, yes, I guess we exist. There seems to be a strong pressure in the world of booklovers-and-readers though that if you don't share your output with others then it "didn't really happen". As if there's no middle ground, no drum-kit-in-the-back-shed equivalent - once you've picked up that keyboard or pencil that's it, you're either bigtime or a fraud. -shrug- Sometimes telling people that I'm writing in my spare time makes me think I'm a fraud too. But I haven't stopped telling stories yet.

Unknown said...

I think the reason musicians seem to do it "for the love", while writers don't, is that there's some key differences between those two mediums.

Most musicians I know still play music to be listened. Sure, they'll practice by themselves, and sometime just play because they want to, but they get their kicks by playing for friends, or a gig at their local, or whatever. And I think it's easier to find an audience for that sort of thing. If a friend comes over, they'll probably be fine with you picking up your guitar, and spending a couple of minutes listening to what you're working on.

For a writer, asking someone to read your novel - or even a short story - is a lot harder to do just on a casual level. There also doesn't really exist a venue like your local's Friday night music - where amateur authors can come and show their stuff to an audience of strangers. I know of a couple of places like this, but it's far less pervasive than it is for music.

And, despite the arguments I've just made, I think there are writers who write for the love of it. They're just not really present in the subset of people looking for a publisher. But blog writers, or the writers on fan fiction sites, are generally not looking to be published, and just write because they want to scratch the writing itch.

I guess it doesn't help that those people, particularly fan fiction writers, are looked down on so much. I mean, a lot of what amateur musicians do is cover their favourite/popular songs - but doing the literary equivalent seems to inevitably taint the writer as a no-hope hack.