Over the previous two installments of this series, I’ve recorded some of the happy happenstances of my journey as a writer, especially those that created a confluence between experience and craft, and then I shared a few techniques I’ve found useful in combatting the blank page, ways to get myself to actually write. Now, I’ll attempt to define an aspect that is somewhat nebulous, perhaps always evolving, but I think key to what small success I’ve begun to have as a writer. This is the change of mindset away from dabbling, dreaming, and occasionally delving into writing and toward an attitude and practice that treats the endeavor as a profession.
As I try to put structure to what this means, I keep thinking about one of the early short stories I wrote. I mean, there’s a whole closet full of old legal boxes at my parents’ house filled with stuff accrued from 8th Grade English classes, love letters, whatnots…yet, the particular story I have in mind came later, when I first gave serious consideration to the idea that I might actually try to publish. This was post-college, maybe even a first mid-to-early-life-crisis. I think I was staring at 30 and telling myself I needed to finally start making it big.
This story I loved.
I languished over it.
I wrote each sentence with care, adulation, and a deep sense of personal investment.
I spent a ton of time on it. Months maybe. Honing, whittling, adding, subtracting, really slaving over certain sentences and scenes (while missing some of the major muscle movements like character development and plot arc, oops).
When I sent that bad boy out into the world, I thought it would not only catch the very first editor’s eye, but also would appear immediately in not just one magazine, but many, with reprints, anthologies, compendiums shortly to follow, after which I’d find it cited in academia, studied, maybe even becoming the basis for a franchise of movies, action figure dolls, basically all my closeted Millennium Falcon daydreams rolled into one story of approximately 5,000 words.
I’m sure you know what frustration I felt when it came back rejected. And continued to come back rejected. (It remains unpublished to this day, and is solidly lumped in as a learning experience among those filing boxes of juvenilia.)
There’s really nothing wrong with this approach – beyond the extreme hubris and naivete of youth. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming!
But what this approach really failed to do, what it prevented me from doing, was failing faster and better. I spent so much time revising those 5,000 words that I didn’t actually write. I got those 5,000 words down, sure. But if that’s all I could produce in three or four months, boy, a novel of 90,000 words would take me, ummm, millennia.
I spent so much time revising those 5,000 words that I didn’t actually write.
I wasn’t doing the things that gain traction fastest and best-est as a writer – and, make no mistake, fastest and best-est are important, especially as our audience(s) flit from attraction to attraction, from distraction to distraction, so that we as writers must break through, compete, and catch on to be read.
This approach of writing and rewriting and never finishing anything, or at least not finishing fast enough, continued for a couple years.
I overcame it only accidentally, when the subject matter of the ghost-girl who haunted me in Iraq (see the first installment for more details) started cropping up everywhere, driving me to write, to produce material that somehow preserved her. Only then did I accidentally start overflowing with material to send out into the world, some of it getting rejected, some of it sticking, finding homes with various journals, and allowing real professionals – editors at various online journals to start, then my agent, then even more professional editors at places like Little, Brown and Da Capo – to step in, shape, guide (and occasionally dismantle) the work I was doing.
I fell into this, like I mention, accidentally. And not without pain. But the key point should be to focus on the achievement of flow, of production. This flow reshaped my focus from producing one or two “perfect” things, to having a gazillion things in various and ungainly states of completion and decay. Besides being able to fail faster, the shift to many imperfect projects rather than one darling project helped me by taking away the pressure of needing to get things exactly right. It helped me also by making me feel more open, and unguarded, when discussing revisions. It helped me think of the work as work, albeit work I love. Yet still something I could, and still do, treat with professional objectivity rather than doting affection. While I loved all these pieces, I did not love them like unique and precious snowflakes. I loved them like I love falling snow: to be appreciated, perhaps toyed with (snowmen or snow caves or swept clean from sidewalk, ice rink, or windshield), and then sent out to see if the world of editors and, beyond them, readers, might find joy in them.
Though this happened to me without planning it, I think, looking back, there are a few lessons I can derive that might help you, O Fellow Writer. These I will group into four categories: Feelings vs. Production, Planning & Executing, Professionally Thick Skin, and Creating a Portfolio.