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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2006 : Feature:

Notes to an Aspiring Author

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.

Beating Envy

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.

Tackling Self-Doubt

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.

Copyright © 2006, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Jan 9, 21:43 by IROSF
Thinking about becoming a writer? Talk back to Jay and Ruth in this thread.

The article is here.
Jan 10, 00:33 by Big Dumb Object
It's nice to hear other writers say these things. I find self doubt especially hard to cope with. I recently had a story sitting idle for a year because I thought it was rubbish, then decided to send it off the other week (New Year's Resolution!) and it's passed the first cut at a magazine with some nice comments.

So, thanks for the article. It helps!
Jan 10, 02:23 by Christina Francine
Yes, it is nice to hear other writers go through the same thoughts and doubts. It is a long and difficult road.

Sometimes publishing is pure luck (after you've learned your craft). Recently I was able to talk with an editor, and find my way out of the slush pile, purely because of someone I knew. Other than that I did nothing different. So yes, I agree with Jay and Ruth.
Jan 10, 04:36 by Terry Hickman
Stubbornness canNOT be over-rated for a writer. I've got that, in spades, and I've sold all of my stories that are at all salable; now I need to write more. Which brings me to #2: Butt in chair. I don't have that one down so well. But it's nice to get another reminder.

Ruthie and Jay have it right!
Jan 10, 13:14 by Josh English
Thanks for this article. It is always good to hear this kind of advice. It can be frustrating to know that a successful career cannot follow a time line.
Jan 11, 00:53 by Heidi Kneale
Knowing that it's officially acknowledged that the system is grossly unfair makes it easier for me to accept.

It's not out to get me, it's out to get everyone, so I don't feel so picked-upon and isolated.

I need to schmooze more.

Who wants to schmooze with me?
Jan 11, 01:32 by glenda larke
This is oh, so true, and it can't be said often enough. I am one of the stubborn old goats. Fortunately for me, I also have a wonderfully stubborn agent.

The first book I really got serious about selling was finally published 13 years after I first submitted it, and was short-listed for the Aurealis Best Australian Fantasy of that year.

Glenda Larke

Jan 11, 06:57 by A.R. Yngve
I applaud the harsh honesty of this article.
Envy is an evil and destructive instinct, and you must keep it in check.
Persistence is absolutely essential: it took me over 10 years from when I started writing novels, to when I first got a novel published with a small press.

Jan 11, 09:49 by Bluejack
One thing I will add is that schmoozing is neither necessary nor sufficient. It may add a little weight to some of the odds in some of the places, but it is by no means the answer.
Jan 18, 12:09 by A.R. Yngve
I only wish there was a way to deter aspiring BAD science-fiction/fantasy writers...

A few handy white lies if you meet such wannabes and they need scaring:

1. "Don't bother. Nobody makes any money writing this stuff anyway."

2. "It's all done with computers nowadays. 'Terry Brooks' is a box owned by Hewlett-Packard."

3. "Just between the two of us: When a woman hears you write sci-fi, she loses all sexual interest in you."

4. "Star Trek fans are profiled by the police as child molesters. If you write so much as a fanfiction and post it on the Internet, you'll end up on their list of suspects."

5. "Haven't you heard? Ever since the Japanese started making real two-legged robots, people stopped reading sci-fi."

Jan 18, 12:53 by Bluejack
A few arguments against this approach:

1) Sometimes bad aspiring writers become good writers.
2) There is plenty of discouragement along the road anyway; if someone persists past their first fifty rejections or so, then you're little white lies are unlikely to dissuade them.
3) Who is the arbiter of 'good' or 'bad', other than the editors who accept and reject material, and the readers who buy, or do not buy, material?

Jan 18, 18:20 by Lois Tilton
The reviewer, of course!
Jan 30, 13:50 by Kenny .....
I don't think there is always envy. When someone breaks in there is hope if they can do it so can I. At least that is my opinion. Someone recently broke into print and I was happy, not envious.
Feb 6, 08:17 by Robert Qualkinbush
I agree with Bluejack about bad writers becoming good
writers. I was editing a book with the first stories/poems
by Hemingway, James Joyce, Fitzgerald, etc.

Except for Hemingway's story written for his High school
magazine, they were pretty much all awful. Joyce's
poem was nauseatingly bad.

Good article, BTW.

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