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Musing on stages of writerly life

There are stages of writing.

Some people start with short stories, and some, bless them, have success with those. It's common wisdom that writing short stories -- and selling them -- will give you some credibility when you try to sell a novel, although there are authors who make their reputations writing nothing but short fiction. Obviously, I'm not one of those. I started writing short stories, or rather, attempting to, and my third attempt was a novel. Then again, I start out writing a short single paragraph response to anything, and the final result is four pages. I'm not really good with length.

The reason you get to hear this is because I was so relieved when Katherine Kerr told me that her first four Deverry books started out as a short story. It was similar to the feeling I get when I read poetry that strikes an experiential chord: I'm not alone. It's not just me.

Finishing a novel is a rite of passage. It means that you can. The first time I finished a novel I felt like I'd climbed Everest. And had no way of getting back down <wry g>. Because, of course, I'd written the novel with the intent that it be published.

Confession: I compulsively read every how-to book on writing and submission I could get my hands on. Every now and then, I still pick one up. I always found process fascinating, especially when it diverged from mine so greatly. I learned about manuscript format via those books. And about SASEs. Basic things.

I was, I think, 25 when I made my first submission; I time this around my wedding because I know I was in contact with the editor before the wedding. I'm not much for dates, unfortunately -- everything happened yesterday, last week, three weeks ago, or a few years ago -- and there's a great deal of inaccuracy in any of those time periods. Time kind of just moves, and I'm slow to figure out how much of it has gone by.

When I finished my first novel, I gave it to a friend to read. I asked her for her input and her criticism, and while intellectually I wanted a critique, emotionally, I wanted her to tell me the book was perfect. This is the first novelist's dilemma. So much has been put into the book with hope and passion that it's hard to be told things simply don't work. First, she congratulated me on even finishing what I'd started. Second, she told me she loved it. And third, she gave me a couple of pointers. Not more than that -- and certainly there was more wrong with the book, as I would discover later -- but it was enough. Let me be clear, though: The intellectual desire for improvement was as genuine as the emotional desire for acceptance. But pain is pain.

When I submitted the novel, I spent days drafting a cover letter. I was nervous, because I wanted to make a good impression. If I could go back and speak to whoever I was then, I would tell that writer not to worry so much; to write a clear and concise letter, and let the book speak for itself. No such thing as time travel. And anyway, I probably wouldn't have listened.

While the book was out, I started on the second one. I didn't want or need a contract for the first one, and I had no deadline -- but I had hope that if the first one sold, I'd have another book ready, and if it didn't sell instantly, more time with which to finish what I'd started. Being able to publish the books at a half year apart would be good, in the bookstore sense of the word, and the longer I had to wait, the more time I had to make that possible. I also find deadlines daunting. I know that many people prefer to have a deadline because it's a spur and it's concrete -- but the closer I get to one, the more panic I feel -- because what if it's not ready? What if it sucks rocks?

During this time, I didn't really tell people that I was writing. I did write. The two were separate. Even after I'd sold the first book, I didn't say anything much until I got the cover flat -- because then, at least, I had something to show people who would ask. Telling people I was a writer was almost out of the question, because the next question they'd ask would be if I'd had anything published. This is me. I neither recommend nor advise against this approach; everyone does things slightly differently.

Later, I discovered that it's actually unusual for someone to sell a first novel (an author of my acquaintance, while talking about how little new writers knew about the business said "They actually expect to sell their first novel -- how naïve can you be?", and I took a poll, because by that time, I knew a lot more writers <wry g>); many people write three, four, even eleven, before they break into print. I knew two local writers personally, and they'd sold short work before they made their first novel sale. I hadn't. They also sold their first novels, so it seemed to me reasonable to expect -- or hope -- that I could manage to do the same.

If you can't sell your first novel, it's not a badge of shame, and it's not a guarantee that you will never sell. If you stop writing while you're waiting to sell your first novel, it seems to me that you're wasting writing time - because most of us have jobs or other work, and finding the time to write in the first place is always a bit of a struggle. If you stop writing entirely, then you stop writing. It isn't your day job, yet. Some people stop. Some give up. Some come back to the writing years later. There's no set pattern. But at one point or another, rejection is just one of the things that you'll have to deal with. Deal with it by screaming at your friends and pulling your hair out for a day or two -- it hurts, after all, and there's no point in pretending it doesn't -- and then get back to work, because the only people who do make it that far are the people who can.

Many of the writers I know who published first novels workshopped them. If they didn't workshop the specific novel, they spent years in workshop trenches, honing their craft, and learning about structure while they tried to assimilate the critiques they received from their peers. If this works for you -- if you can work this way -- it's my first recommendation. I couldn't. My reaction, in the early days, was to try to fix everything, willy-nilly; to take every piece of criticism to heart, without any objectivity. A workshop requires objectivity on your part. It requires the ability to take the useful advice and jettison the rest. If you can't do this, don't. It won't stop you from writing, and it won't necessarily stop you from being published; you can learn to rewrite on your own. I know a number of published writers who never went the workshop route. I know more who did. Your call. I know none who refused to revise or edit.

Once you've finished your first novel, finishing a novel is easier. This, at least, has been my experience. Finishing a good novel is never a guarantee. Most of the writers I know had some trouble with their second books because -- as I've said elsewhere -- it's the first book you'll write on a deadline, with a publisher expecting it. This is entirely natural.

Also natural are the blues that come along when the second book is published (and often by that point you'll have a third sold, and might be working on a fourth). This is when reality sets in and bites you. If you're lucky, you'll find your audience right away. Most of us aren't that lucky. Finding a publisher becomes a thing of the past; finding the audience becomes a driving worry. The emotional desire for acceptance fades, and the intellectual desire to tell the story itself becomes dominant; resistance to critiques and editorial guidance disappears almost entirely. Unless it's bad advice; that, too, becomes clearer.

But all of that seems like nothing when you haven't sold a novel yet.

(next rock)


Aug. 20th, 2004 08:00 am (UTC)
I was lucky. Suspiciously so, actually. Writing professionally snuck up on me long before I got the guts up to write for myself.

My tutor at university was approached by a publisher to help research a ghost book for a pittance. She said no, but knew I was broke, and knew my essay writing style got positive comments, so passed them to me. That gave me leverage to get given an interview to do for the London Student newspaper (Terry Pratchett, of all people!), which in turn led a mate to pass my name to a family friend who needed someone to dash out cheap non-fiction direct-marketing books...

... cutting it short a bit, that work gave me enough of a history to swing a couple of pitches for more serious non-fic work -- guides for a game produced by a company I'd worked for (Alright, alright, it was Magic: The Gathering). The guides swung me a job full-time as an editor, and part-time work writing for RPGs. That's straying into speculative fiction territory, and some of the RPG work included short stories. By this point, my publication history legitimately carried 60+ items. One of the RPG companies decided to use me for an entirely in-character artifact (the diary of a mad visionary), and that actually worked really well. It's still the piece I'm closest to being happy with, I think. Then when the same publisher got let down at the 11th hour for a novella (the 11th segment in a 13-book story arc, ouch), the diary piece swung it for me. They liked the novella enough to give me a trilogy the following year, which brings me more or less up to date.

I got to the end of the trilogy worn out and mildly traumatised (it was a hellish year for many reasons), but having discovered that yes, I could write a novel. In fact, I could write three of them, and while they aren't high art -- 3 novels in 16 months didn't leave time for that! -- the target audience seemed to like them. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the confidence to admit to myself that yeah, actually I'm not all that bad at this lark.

I am finding though that it's hard to maintain the discipline to write when it's for myself. It's a lot easier for me to write when it's the way I pay the rent than it is when I get home so drained I can barely talk...

I have many Evil Plans(tm) hatching to get back behind a keyboard of my own full time. I guess though that my acid test is going to be whether I can keep at it anyway, despite being exhausted, despite having a hundred other things I have to do, despite having no guarantees that the time and effort will fetch any reward.

In many ways, it's like being cast back to the beginning, having done the middle.

Anyway, I'm really rambling, and it's your journal, so I'm going to shut up!!
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC)
I am finding though that it's hard to maintain the discipline to write when it's for myself. It's a lot easier for me to write when it's the way I pay the rent than it is when I get home so drained I can barely talk...

I've also heard this -- that part of what drives one to write (at least once you've started to sell even shorts) is the need for money. Not everyone is motivated by it; a lot of writers who suddenly find they don't do it for money write more slowly, though.

Because they can afford to, and because they can give in a bit more to the "it's not ready it's not ready" stress that would otherwise have to be comparmentalized in order to make a deadline.

So, you're not alone in that. I remember back at the store, I hated hated hated having contracts and deadlines because of the pressure, and andpuff conversely required them because if they didn't exist, she (at that time, let me quickly add) felt that it was almost a waste of time; it wasn't professional if someone wasn't paying for it, and she was much more likely to do something else, and to write Very Slowly instead. Once a contract was in hand, otoh, she wrote every day, and was absolutely bloody-minded about writing time because it was a matter of being professional.

The rambling's okay <g>.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:33 pm (UTC)
I made the mistake of calling mid-afternoon the other day.. got hung up on ;D

If I'm calling during the day, I start with grovelling and the nature of the disaster...
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 21st, 2004 02:58 pm (UTC)
I did try to warn you...
Aug. 23rd, 2004 03:47 pm (UTC)
Cross my heart, I never got the call! The cell had to have gotten it's signals crossed. Or something.
Aug. 20th, 2004 11:26 am (UTC)
I'm assuming if you wrote for the owners of M:TG you are talking about WotC. Which triology did you do for them?

And any hints to someone writing the Eberron open call?

Aug. 21st, 2004 10:21 am (UTC)
I worked full time for WotC as an editor on their SLA Industries RPG line up until the Great Cull of Christmas '95. I haven't actually freelanced for them, I'm afraid -- the novels were for Vampire: The Masquerade. Sorry I can't be of more use...
Aug. 21st, 2004 11:03 am (UTC)
No worries. Just thought I'd ask.

Good luck with your current project(s)!