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Stacey Janssen

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Dave Noonan


  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
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  • Robin Shantz

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Publisher: Bluejack

October, 2009 : Essay:

Danger Will Robinson

An interesting thing happened on the way to a writing career.

I remember as a kid, 17 or so, having a conversation with my buddies wishing someone would explain all the stuff about emotions, life, dating, and choices. If only there was a book that told us what was really going on, then we could get past the unrelenting chaos of it all and live happy lives. When I was older, I realized that information was out there, we just weren't ready to hear it—experience is the only true teacher.

As an adult, I watch my kids struggling with the same things I did. I watch them ram around attacking life with vim and vigor, trying new things, yet occasionally abandoning promising activities because the reward is just too far out of reach.

I realize this is how we all behave. This isn't just the behavior of my kids. We all struggle against the chaos in our lives, overwhelmed by stress, angst and an urgent need for order, only to fall back and give up. I'm sure each of us can think of a time when it became too much, when faith in ourselves couldn't overcome our doubts and fears and we surrendered.

When I was in ninth grade I tried out for the football team. Raised by a single mom, I didn't get much exposure to sports and never really learned to love it. Oh, she made sure we got to play baseball and basketball on little league teams, but it was never a priority.

Then, as I approached what I considered to be adult hood (ninth grade, mind you) I decided that I should be a linebacker on my high school football team. This urge to play football was partly for the popularity and partly for the girls—deep down, it was never really about me. I didn't want to do this because I was passionate about it. I just thought it was something I should want—some dream I was supposed to pursue. I went to practice and tryouts every day for weeks. I spent an inordinate amount of time with very large seniors sitting on my chest only moments after hearing "hike," and admiring the sky.

After three weeks, I quit.

A few weeks later, one of the seniors approached me and asked what had happened. I told him I obviously wasn't very good, since I spent all the time on my back in the grass. I was doing the team a favor. Imagine my surprise when he said I was the top pick to make the team. I'd survived two rounds of cuts and the upperclassmen had discussed how impressed they were that I kept getting up and kept going. They were very impressed by that. one told me. I didn't know that I was earning their respect or that I'd been noticed and was secretly being cheered on by those on the other side of the line. With no indication of how I was doing, I assumed I was failing and gave up. I hope you see where this is going.

Humans are funny creatures with many amazing gifts. One of them—an active, creative mind—is a double-edged sword. When we are faced with a dearth of knowledge we will fill that void with the worst possible answers.

The same is true with writing and publishing. Story after story, novel after novel gets rejected, so we sit alone in our private places and lament. I know of no other profession that makes so much out of the simple handwritten words of a rejection letter. We get angry and hurt and some of us quit. Others trudge onward, hoping and praying that the next story, the next novel will reach that editor who finds your words intriguing and your story compelling enough to buy.

Those few who survive this stage—those who have the friends and colleagues, family members and personal fortitude to keep moving along the path —one day catch a break. An editor agrees to buy a story! We think, Lord Almighty, it's a new day, the darkness has lifted and I can see the beautiful valley laid out before me.

This usually ends when the door closes behind you from your trip to the mailbox that day. The sweet victory of the sale is fleeting. Now there are new hurdles, new trials. The head-monkeys begin to chatter once again. "That was a fluke" or "they felt sorry for you" or "you know the editor, so it was a cheat," etc.

"Can I do this again?" becomes a sing-song in your head as you sit down to write the next piece. That's when the emotional roller coaster starts and you become paralyzed with anxiety and fear.

Before you sold something, no one had any expectations. Your writing career was a blank slate. Now that your words are out there, there is something to be measured against. What if that was the best thing you'll ever write?

Here is where we lose the next round of fighters. They succumb to the weight of their fears: fear of success, fear of ridicule, fear of reviews. People will begin to send you letters or talk about your work and some of them won't like it. Some of them will be downright rude and spiteful—full of venom. The chaos swirls around you, sapping your emotional will and amplifying those head-monkeys until all you hear are their chattering screams.

Fortunately, they're just phantoms, nightmares that aren't worth the time we've already spent on them. If you have the passion to be a writer, then write. If you have the desire to see your words in print, then by all means, send your work to people who will pay you. More important than talent or luck is tenacity. Writing is an endurance sport. You have to believe your work is worth reading. You have to have a commitment to learning and reading and keeping your butt in the chair when the last thing you want to do is write.

Look, there is a silver bullet. I'll tell you what it is and you won't believe me. You'll be sending your stuff into the ether and editors will be rooting for you to send in that next one. They'll talk to each other at conventions and parties and someone will mention how your work is steadily improving, how they're hoping the next tale you send them is the one that they can put in their magazine. They won't be telling you, of course. You must have faith in yourself.

Because editors sit around in bars and conventions (usually in bars) and lament that one new voice that was nearing the threshold. How they had wished for them to succeed, and has anyone else heard from them? Don't be that person. Don't be the individual who almost made it. Don't give up on yourself because you don't understand the deafening silence. This is the moment where, no matter what you feel about religion, you have to have some faith. Trust that you can achieve your vision.

The silver bullet to being a successful writer is sheer gumption. Never give up, never surrender. Learn, for the love of all that is holy, practice your craft, read in and out of your comfort zone, and grow your skills through the act of committing words on page over and over again.

You can sell your work. You'll be a published author if you want it bad enough. One of the best things I've heard from established authors is: if you can think of any reason that you shouldn't strive for this, then by all means, take up knitting. Do not put yourself through the heartache. But if you can't think of doing anything else, then you've got to commit the time, will and energy to doing this all the way. No playing, no pretending. And, please, no posturing.

There are only writers and those who talk about writing. Be in the right camp on that one. Remember, the only time you ever fail is when you quit.

Copyright © 2009, John A. Pitts. All Rights Reserved.


Oct 8, 07:07 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 8, 23:53 by JM Cornwell
It never occurred to me that editors were talking about me, but it should have been obvious.

I used to send Algis Budrys story after story and all I got in return were 3-4 pages of single spaced, typewritten rejections it was obvious Mr. Budrys had typed himself. There were a few compliments, but most of the letters went into great detail about what I was doing wrong and what could be better. After several such exchanges, I quit sending him stories and concentrated on other genres, always with the lingering regret that nothing was good enough for him. I still kept writing and continue to write, and read.

I had similar experiences with other editors who'd write personal notes that included the invitation to keep submitting, but I never could break that barrier. I turned to nonfiction and was easily and quickly published, but I still hungered for the fiction credits and finally made it this year. Probably wouldn't have taken me so long if I had known -- or even imagined -- that editors were talking about me.
Oct 15, 19:21 by Dario Ciriello
Good article. One moderately published writer friend of mine had exactly that happen at Worldcon just recently. She approached a big-name editor, who -- to my friend's stunned amazement, said "Yes, X (another big-name editor) and I were just talking about your work a little while ago."

"A series of ladders" is how Gardner Dozois described a writer's life to my Clarion west class back in '02, recommending we cultivate a thick skin and don't pay too much attention to reviews. And I think it might have been Graham Greene who said all that was needed to be a writer was "A will... an indomitable will."

You sure do have to want it. And there *is* no try.
Oct 16, 13:22 by Michael Andre-Driussi
A solid article.

(I believe there is a typo early on -- "ram around," in "I watch them ram around attacking life," I think should be "run around.")

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