Writing as a Job

I don’t actually remember the exact moment when I decided that I wanted to be a professional writer.  I was know that I was young enough at the time that I wasn’t particularly concerned with considerations like money.  I was still in that sweet spot in life where I knew that when I grew up I would have to pick something to do that defined who I was, and I knew that the something I wanted to do was tell stories.

It was perfect, beautiful even.  I loved stories, loved to read them, loved to watch them, loved to close my eyes and let them dance around in my brain; all I had to do was learn to take the stories inside my head, put them down on paper, and I would get to BE a writer.

As I grew up, I came to realize that there was a bit more to it than that.  You have to learn to use the right words in the right place so that your reader will be able to pick up on the subtleties of the story.  You have to plan ahead, make sure that what you’re telling is cohesive and meaningful, a single story, instead of a series of unrelated tales that simply happen to somebody.  You have to figure out how to make sure that your reader will relate to the characters so that they are invested in them.

Lots of subtle little details.

But those are skills you pick up along the way.  They are tools that you add to your toolbox, and while you might struggle with them, wrestle with them, sometimes even hate and despise them, once you’ve figured out how they work, the writing itself is still the same glorious adventure that you loved before.

It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I began to discover where the real work began.

I remember, very specifically, having finished my second or third novel, I looked it over and thought to myself, ‘finally, something worth publishing.’

Looking back I realize how terribly, terribly wrong I was, but at the time, having just forced the last big of this giant brain-baby onto the page, I was convinced that I had delivered unto the world the first book of my burgeoning career.  All I needed to do was send it off to get published.

So I got on my parents’ computer, headed to whatever search engine it was we were using at the time, and typed in something along the lines of ‘publishing novels,’ which got me a long list of book publishers.  Of course, there homepages were filled with advertisements for the books and authors they already had, but I did a little bit of digging, and at long last found a link entitled ‘submissions.’

And this was where my journey hit its first snag.  I had expected them to give me an e-mail address or a physical address where I could send my book.  Instead, they had about a page and a half describing, in detail, what they were looking for, and what they were not looking for, and how everything was to be organized.

The first hurdle listed was something called a ‘query letter.’  I was bewildered.  I knew both of the words: query meant ‘question’ and letter… well, that was just a letter, duh.  So a letter of question.  What was the question?  After looking over the submission requirements for ten or fifteen minutes, then googling ‘query letter’ and scanning through examples I came to the inescapable conclusion that they wanted me to send them a letter asking them if they wanted to see my novel.

What. The . Hell?

Send a communication asking if I could send a communication?  How was that not a waste of time?  They published books, clearly they needed to look at potential manuscripts to decide if they wanted to publish it.  How could they possibly look at a letter… a half page letter at that, and decide, based on that, whether they wanted to see my manuscript?  But the real kicker was the little comment at the end of the paragraph where they informed me that it would take several months for them to get back to me.

Months?!  It had taken months to write my book, they couldn’t possibly, not seriously, be expecting me to wait for the same length of time it had taken me to write my book just to hear them say ‘sure, send it to us and we’ll take a look.’

But they did!  And more than that, when they did ask for it (at this point it hadn’t even occurred to me that they might not want to see the manuscript itself), it would take them even longer to decide if they were willing to publish it!

Absurdity!

Well, my google search had given me a list of publishers, surely they weren’t all so demanding!

Except that they were.  Every single one.  Not only that, but it turned out that not a single one of them was willing to even consider my book if I had anyone else thinking about considering to look at it!  Which meant that if I sent my first query letter out that day, got a reply to send the book, sent it, and then found out that somehow they had decided NOT to publish my book, I’d have to start the entire process over again!  From scratch!

I had spent months and months lovingly and carefully sculpting a story from nothing.  Some days I worked for hours at a stretch creating characters and backstories, building a world… it had been a labor of love.  Then, just when I thought my work was complete, when all I had to do was send something off and wait for someone else to finish working on it, it turned out that my trials had just begun.

The secret about taking up a job in the arts, the thing that most people don’t realize when they start, is that the art is not the work at all.  You assume that it is, after all, it’s hard.  Everyone can make art, but very few people learn to make it WELL, and you assume that the long hours of work, and the research and study that you put in are what make an artist.  But if you are looking for any level of commercial success as an artist you need to realize that what separates the successful from the rest of the pack is largely bullheaded determination.

Skill is good and important, but trying to be a successful artist is a lot like trying to be a violinist in a machine shop.  Whether you are the best in the world at what you do, or a novice, most people can’t even hear you over the cacophony that surrounds you.  There are moments of silence, brief periods when you can be heard, but those moments are unpredictable and fleeting.  You have to be fortunate enough to be playing at those moments, and to be heard by somebody who can appreciate what you’re doing before the scream of steel and the grinding of metal overwhelms you once again.

It is possible, of course, to be an artist in a vacuum.  You can spend your entire life writing beautiful works, then piling them up on the edge of your desk, unconcerned with whether or not anybody ever reads them, but most artists need their creations to be seen, to be heard, to be read.

And the only way to do that is to fight for them, tooth and nail, climbing up the side of a cliff, against the wind, in snow six feet thick, without shoes…. Well, I think you get the idea.

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