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This column was prompted by an aspiring writer, who emailed and asked: “What encouragement can you give to someone who has never been published?”
The following, rambling necklace of thoughts might serve as an answer.
I was at a writers’ conference a number of years ago, in a major Midwestern city. Several of us publishing types were on a panel; the questions from the weekend attendees were not so unusual. One asked how to approach editors.
When it came my turn, I answered that editors are not the gatekeepers to writers’ dreams. I’ve never held a writer’s destiny in my hands. I’ve held some good manuscripts and some awful manuscripts. But I never ushered a writer into the pantheon of great writing success stories.
I sensed that a couple people on the panel turned into ice sculptures upon my answer, or at least there was a noticeable frostiness.
Why? Simply put, many editors are aspiring writers themselves. Writers have notoriously fragile egos; editors can have notoriously large egos. So it’s not hard to imagine what you get when you cross a writer with an editor: A large, fragile ego.
That’s why you can’t put too much stock into a harsh response from an editor. Perhaps he’s right and perhaps he’s wrong when reviewing your work.
Maybe your writing is bad. Maybe the editor is having a bad day. I’ve known plenty of writers who were devastated upon receiving feedback from a “publishing professional.”
But maybe your writing is good. You have to keep plugging, keep honing your ability.
Here is a key lesson I’ve learned over the years: keep the momentum going with some kind of effort to move the ball forward consistently. It might be finishing a short story or a chapter in an investigative piece you’ve done on the turf wars among salt-shaker collectors. It might be sending out queries to a dozen agents. Maybe you manage to put your third (and best!) novel to bed.
But you’ll be amazed what movement and effort will do for your outlook. You’ll go from being depressed to being a writer who knows she’ll make it one day.
Haven’t we all been depressed when six months have gone by and we’ve done no work on our next great writing project? Remember the old adage about being a successful running back in football: keep your feet moving.
Second, resolve to conquer a fear you have about writing.
This can be any number of things. For me, it was a fear of interviewing people. A shy person by nature, I still have been afflicted by the need to write. So many years ago, I dived into the deep end of the pool and interviewed people, one after the other. It was painful for me, but sheer effort enabled me to overcome my fear and become a serviceable interviewer. The skill enhances the books I write.
The thing that always amazes me about aspiring writers is the unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished. For every J.K. Rowling, there are eleventy gazillion Jim Fletchers.
I’ve had a few books published and they sold “okay.” I had to content myself with having fun doing it and making a modest amount of money. But having been an editor first, I knew what the odds are of having a mega-bestseller. I knew that going in. So my goal was to do the best I could and have fun doing it.
I hit my definition of success.
As I’ve said before, several times, unless you learn, as the apostle Paul did, to be content in all things, you will likely become a frustrated writer.
As I write this, I glance at my 17-year-old son. In a mere five months, he will graduate from high school and go into the world, as they say. He is sleeping, and I notice his profile is so similar to the first image I saw of him in an ultrasound. He is happy that school has been cancelled tomorrow due to a snowstorm that looks like it was ordered from a Norman Rockwell infomercial.
Life is pretty good. I might write a piece about my lovely, good son and submit it to a small literary journal somewhere. That’s my definition of writing success.
I am the gatekeeper to my writing dreams, and you are the gatekeeper to your own writing hopes.
Look for something that makes you happy, and write about it.