Recently we talked about some of the things editors in our field care about, how they are looking for the strange, the different, the new—and not in the cover letter. Now we're going to talk about some of the things writers care about, the aspiring author in particular. We're going to say some things aspiring authors probably don't want to hear, and we're going to say some things that they've already heard dozens and dozens of times.
But that doesn't make them any less important.
It used to be that writing was mostly a lonely business, and on many levels it still is. But now in the age of the Internet, we have much more opportunity for contact with other writers—chat rooms, online workshops, listservs, et al. We no longer have to make all our mistakes in isolation when we're first starting out; we're surrounded, virtually, by other writers who critique our works and help us grow. But what happens when some of those writers we set out with break in faster than we do? For the vast majority of us, the reaction is one of envy. Unless you're especially enlightened, it never really goes away. For some people it expresses itself as jealousy; for others, depression. For a lucky few, it's a shrug and an "oh well." But we all feel it.
You get to the point where you have half-a-dozen sales, and you're envious of the guy who has twenty. You finally have twenty sales, and you're envious of your writing partner with the three-book contract. We're all competing with each other here, and the folks we're competing with are our best friends.
The thing to remember when envy comes along is that while we all compete in the economic sense, a writing career isn't a footrace. Just because one person succeeds doesn't mean everyone else failed. There is no winner and no champion; there are only writers who publish repeatedly and writers who don't. However your envy expresses itself—and it will—you will need a very big stick with which to fight it off.
Another constant companion of the working author is insecurity and self-doubt. We all wonder on a regular basis if what we're doing is crap, and whether we should just throw it all over and give up and let the world continue without our writing.
Elizabeth Bear once gave Ruth a great tip for that kind of mood—an "I-quit" week (or month, or whatever). No writing for a week, not a word, not a scrap of an idea, not a note, nothing. Any time you start thinking in terms of story, you have to stop. By the end of a week, Ruth usually finds that she is so story-deprived, she just has to get back to it. And she hasn't needed an "I-quit" week for a long time now.
Writing is addictive. Writers have to give rein to the narratives forming in their heads, even if the only folks who ever read a particular piece are crit partners and family members. External validation—i.e., publication—is terrific, but the internal drive is what keeps your fire going when you're mired in self-doubt.
Being Lucky and Being Stubborn
Now for something you very likely don't want to hear at all: the system isn't fair. It's not enough to work hard, go to workshops, read all the good books on the writing process and improving your craft, hit the boot camps for genre writers like Clarion, Odyssey or Viable Paradise, submit regularly and use proper manuscript format. All those things help. Some of them help a lot. But you also need luck, proper planetary alignment, and the virtue of having a story in slush that doesn't use the same conceit as a story in submission from an established pro whose name will help the market you're submitting to sell more copies — and a whole lot of other factors that are utterly out of your control.
Networking is important. Good practices, like the above, are important, even critical. But the two most important things you can do are to be stubborn and to keep your butt in that chair. What stubbornness does for you is that it keeps you working and submitting even when the world doesn't feel fair and your self-doubts are dancing the masochism tango with your feelings of envy. What keeping your butt in the chair does for you is to continue making words hit the page inside that stubborn focus.
Without those two, you are lost. With those two, you have an opportunity to beat the system, fair or not. Being a stubborn old goat has as much to do with selling regularly as any amount of talent, brilliance or networking you can do. Keeping your manuscripts in the mail gives editors far more opportunities to buy them than leaving your manuscripts in the drawer (or on the hard drive) just because rejection curdles your heart. The cure for heart-curdling is to be stubborn and write more stories and send them out anyway.
As to those rejections, they're another unpleasant fact of life. Robert Heinlein claimed to have sold every word he ever wrote, but even he had a trunk novel that came out after he died. We all know a writer or two who sold on their first send-out and has seemed unstoppable since. But for every one of those, there's a Carrie Vaughn, with over 300 rejections before her first sale, or Jay, who's edging up on 1,000 rejections across his career. Ruth, on the other hand, has no clue how many rejects she has. She's never counted, she's never wanted to. But she's well aware that it's A Lot. And she assumes that for every story she writes, she's adding more uncounted rejections to her collection.
For Jay, counting rejections is a way of removing the sting, thumbing his nose at the system. For Ruth, ignoring rejections, once she's recorded and filed them, is a way of eliminating additional frustration, avoiding digging yet one more hole to hoist herself out of later.
However you handle it, you must handle it. No one is so brilliant as to avoid rejection, and if you let rejection cripple you, your aspirations will never grow beyond the dream state.
Maybe you think a mantra of "just keep plugging away" is fatuous. In that case, go with "butt-in-chair" or "stubborn old goat." Those work for some people. Find one which works for you. Layer it with music, passages from your favorite author, some way of making that mantra your own, so you can survive envy, self-doubt, unfairness and the ravening monster of rejection. Whatever your mantra is, when you find it, it's going to have an element of persistence in it.
Because you can't make it in this business without a lot of persistence and very thick skin.