Friday, January 21, 2011

14 Thoughts for Aspiring Authors

Are you considering making fiction writing a full-time pursuit? I'm about two years into that transition, and I wanted to share some observations from the field. Quick recap. I've been writing diligently for two and a half years: nine months part-time while I worked as a graphic designer, trying to figure out if the story straining to burst from my bosom was any good; seven months writing and querying full-time but not yet published, after my office closed; seven months writing erotica full-time for an e-press and polishing my romances on the side; and for the past six months, still writing erotica and also short romance for both a traditional publisher (Harlequin Blaze) and a smaller, progressive digital and print publisher (Samhain). And so from the trenches of new authordom, here is what you may encounter as you make this journey…

1. You will get rejected. Lots.

2. But you could very possibly one day get a contract offer from a publisher or agent you respect, and if so, you will very suddenly forget how much those initial rejections stung.

3. You will need a ritual or treat for when you get good news—requests for partials or fulls, new contracts, exceptional reviews—something indulgent to punctuate the good moments. Rejections are sharp and painful and sudden as electric shocks, and you can't allow yourself to become one of Pavlov's dogs. Each and every time you hit Send, you are inviting another zap, and they can't make you shy from your goal. Sales and agent nibbles and contest wins are treats worthy of the risk, but it can't hurt to sweeten those triumphs further with a bottle or box of something pleasurable. Positive reinforcement.

4. Bad news does not warrant a ritual, merely an hour or day of mourning and owning your disappointment…and once the pile of horse crap also known as a rejection or a nasty review has ceased steaming, put on your grown-up writer gloves and dig around, just in case there's a little nugget of wisdom hidden in there. Note: rejection probably won't ever fail to hurt when it arrives, but as you cultivate your author calluses, it won't hurt as badly, or for as long.

5. On your journey, you will make new author friends. Perhaps through your writing group, or at conferences, or on a social networking site, or via a blog you participate in. Some of them will be the most excellent people ever. They will offer you free advice you can't find in a book. Some will turn out to be petty or competitive or maybe even mean, because fiction authors are inherently emotional, passionate, and sensitive creatures, just like you. Treat them kindly but use your intuition. Some hurtful people are having a shitty day or week or life, but some are just assholes. If you feel in your gut you've bumped into a genuine asshole, smile and back away slowly. Never bait an asshole. Save your worms for more worthwhile hooks.

6. You will set goals, and meet them. Or miss them. When you meet them, you will be proud to feel like a professional, driven writer, and you will set more goals. When you miss them, you will either come up with excuses (valid or otherwise), accept that you were being unrealistic, or admit that you dropped the ball. You will then set more goals, ones that are both realistic and ambitious. Writing is an addiction, one whose drug can do our souls great good, but we still have to manage our disease one day at a time. Writers get strung out very easily.

7. Your personal life will change. If you quit or lose a job and pursue writing in its place, you will have to adjust to the financial hit. If you have a partner, prepare for them to feel differently about you. Perhaps proud and fearlessly supportive, perhaps resentful, perhaps anxious, perhaps all of the above. You will feel differently, too. If you used to have a more lucrative gig, be prepared to find yourself redefining your worth in monetary terms, and worrying if the scale balancing your worth against your partner's may be tipping. Let yourself feel these worries, and if they don't land you in the hospital with a nervous breakdown or in the poor house, keep working toward your goal of professional writerdom.

8. As time goes on, you will diagnose yourself with authorly illnesses. Some will be real, some imagined. You may wake up with writer's block, carpal tunnel, back pain, eye strain, spontaneous retina detachment, Sedentary Ass Syndrome, and mental hermitism. Dim your screen. Be conscious of your posture. Go outside. Move your body and let your blood circulate and refresh your brain. Remind yourself that there's a world and people outside of what you've created in a Word document. Realize that writing is a very hard job to leave at the office. Accept and expect that it can be an all-consuming pursuit, and that there is a fine line between passionate abandon and narrowly focused self-obsession.

9. Things will be different after you sell. You will see yourself differently, and for a brief and beautiful time, you will feel like an invincible genius. Congratulations, you've made it to the start line. Long drive to the track, wasn't it? You may suddenly have more money, or perhaps just the promise of modest but real royalties. When your release day comes, you will feel both euphoric and vulnerable, like you're standing naked on a mountaintop. Because hooray, you have arrived! But oh noes, because now a thousand opinionated, internet-connected loud-mouths have been handed an open invitation to share their feelings about the thing you worked so hard to create. They will praise your baby and you will grin; they will tell you your baby is ugly and should never have been birthed. You will question whether or not making more babies is worth it, and if you are a writer, you will go and get yourself pregnant with the next book.

10. Once you are published, you will work with many professionals, and you will trust them with your precious work. You'll hand your baby over and pray they don't disfigure it. You'll pray they will hand it back to you, freshly bathed and wearing a precious new outfit with pockets stuffed with money, yet it will still unmistakably be your baby. But there is a chance they will not. They may run away with it and leave you bereft. They may mangle it, or dress it in clothes you cannot stand. They may return it to you unrecognizable. You may overhear them describing it to others, and you will think, That is not my baby. That is why before you hand it over, you have to perform background checks.

11. When you sell your work, you must understand that you have done so because someone expects to profit off of your labor. They did not buy your work because you inherently deserve such treatment. They did so because they expect to make money from you, and this is good. They trust you and have faith in your talent, and now you must decide whether or not to return the favor. Authors and their publishers live together in a strange and glorious kingdom, one in which both parties trade off the duties of master and servant. When it is your turn to dictate, do so graciously. When it is your turn to bow, do so with dignity and trust.

12. Once you are published, you will get rejected. Perhaps less, but still lots, over the course of your career. It will sting in a whole new way, as though a very sharp needle is piercing your hard-earned, trusted writer calluses, straight through your bones and into your marrow. But it is not barbed, and unless you pick at the scab and let it permanently infect your confidence, you will recover.

13. Once you are published, you may think the world owes you certain praise, opportunities, and treatment. It doesn't. You earn your external rewards one check and one satisfied reader at a time, and you will absolutely need to cultivate a strong internal sense of worthiness for the in-between times, as you wait amid the chirping crickets for the glorious highs of outward validation.

14. All throughout your journey, you will find that to physically write is to live your life treading water in a deep quarry. Above the water is sunshine and sweet air and a perfect sense of up and down. At the bottom is pressure and darkness, confusion and cold, hard, coarse granite. Some days, writing will come easily, as pleasurable and effortless and joyful as floating on the surface, sun on your face. Other days you will struggle for breath and orientation, down in the pitch darkness. Most days you will swim somewhere in the middle, with a sense of which way is which, aimed toward the light. But you can never predict which days you will float, and which you will fight not to drown, and that is why you must endeavor to write every single day, whenever possible, so that you don't chance missing one of the surface days. And down in the darkness, that's where you'll strengthen your muscles and lungs and your faith that despite this moment of blackness, you'll once again see the sun.


  1. Love this. Retweeting it now!

    I especially like how you mentioned what happens after you get published. I spent so much time trying to *get* published that I didn't realize until after it happened that I was still s complete newbie, still had a ton to learn, and still had more books to write!

    I honestly had no clue that published authors got rejection letters, and the ones I've gotten since becoming an "author" have hurt like a bitch compared to the ones I got as an "aspiring writer" - maybe because I'd been expecting those, LOL.

    You're a fabulous writer (look, I gives you external validations!) and I just *know* that someday I'll be saying "Oh, I knew her when" :)

  2. I like every one of your points, but #14 hit home for me. That is a great description of what writing for a living is like. Thanks for putting it so elegantly!

  3. Very nice! I love #3. It's going to be a bumpy ride -- celebrate whenever you can. When the joy is gone, when your heart is gone, there's not a story in you that anyone will want to read.

  4. This was just what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  5. This is fabulous. Are you @megmaguire so I can retweet it?

  6. Thanks, Rebecca! I'm actually @megguire on Twitter. There are a few of us Meg Maguires a-lurkin' out there.