Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, July 09, 2007

"Reality" is Overrated

by Jeffrey S Savage

Imagine starting college as, say, a computer science major. The first day, the professor comes in and says, “I hope none of you plan on ever becoming computer programmers for a living. Because there are already too many programmers, and none of you have the talent anyway or you’d be out programming. With that out of the way, let’s talk about IF-THEN statements.”

Sound unrealistic? And yet, almost anyone who’s attended enough writing conferences or taken enough college level creative writing courses has heard a speech very similar to that.

I’d like to give the teachers who say things like that the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to believe they are only trying to help prospective writers set realistic expectations. I want to believe they are looking out for their students’ well being. Because I’d hate to believe so many writing classes are being taught by cranky pessimistic people, who are too constipated by their own lack of success to even consider the possibility they might be killing the dreams of a future Shakespeare.

Of course there is a fine line between realism and defeatism. The truth is, it’s hard to publish your first novel, and it’s not much easier to publish your second or third. You’ve all heard plenty of stats about how many queries agents and publisher get every week, and how few of those actually make it to acceptance. And even if you are accepted, the odds of making a significant amount of money as a novelist are even slimmer. I read somewhere that there are more people in the US making a living as professional baseball players than there are making a living as novelists.

The problem with the above statements is that if they are all you listen to, you would think it is virtually impossible to get published. And even worse, you’d come away convinced that writing is pointless if you don’t get published. How many promising writers have run up against the brick wall of “reality”—presented to them for their own good—and come away convinced it is pointless to even begin writing?

I’ll admit I walked into the world of writing about as naively as it is possible. Yes, I thought most published authors made lots of money. Yes I thought editors and publishers would fight for my book. I thought I understood the publishing industry. In short, I didn’t have a clue. But somehow, it all worked out anyway. I wish I had known more back then, but if I’d been hit in the face with all the negativism, I might never have started.

With all that in mind, I’d like to suggest the following points to prospective writers.

1) Begin writing for the joy of creation. This doesn’t mean publishing contracts can’t fill your daydreams—and nightdreams for that matter. But writing is about so much more than getting published, and as soon as you tie your joy in writing to someone paying you for your work, some of the joy disappears. Write for the same reason you would begin painting, or playing the piano. How many parents get their kids instrument lessons because they expect them to join the New York Philharmonic on their first try? How many people pick up a paint brush for the first time with the expectation that they’ll sell their first watercolor for a million dollars? If you begin writing because it makes you happy, you will never be disappointed, because even when you’ve had dozens of rejections, the process of writing is filled with tons of opportunities to be happy.

2) Dare to dream. When I was a kid, I loved to fish. Any time anywhere. And I always thought a HUGE fish was just about to take a bite of my bait. If you’ve ever read McElligott’s Pool by Dr. Seuss, that boy was me. Of course, I never caught a whale, but I did catch some pretty big fish, and even when I didn’t I had a lot of fun thinking I might.

That’s the way I feel about writing. Yes, I write because I love writing. And even more I love having people read my books. But every time I heard a writing teacher tell me not to expect to get published, and certainly not to expect to make any money at it, I kind of scratched my head. Someone’s getting published. Why shouldn’t it be me? And if I’m going to make money at it, why not make a lot of money? I mean it’s not like becoming the King of England; last time I checked you didn’t have to be born into a writing family to succeed in the business. Why not shoot for the moon?

Every time I hear another author say, “We’re never going to get rich doing this,” I think, “Why not?” Why shouldn’t you get rich doing something you love? Are other people more deserving? Should money only go to people who wear suits and work in NY skyscrapers?

3) Be realistic. First I tell you to write for the joy of it, then I tell you to dream of getting rich writing. How can those two go hand in hand? The key is to fish for whales while understanding most of the fish in the pond are bluegills. But catching a bluegill can be a lot of fun.

Realism is a two edged sword. Being realistic means understanding that the average LDS author makes anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 per book and the national market is not much different. It means understanding that you may receive one-hundred or more rejections before getting the first “yes.” It means that you realize you will have to do marketing, but that most of it will be on your own. Very few publishers do multi-city book signing tours, and they tend to do it for a limited number of authors.

But realism also means understanding that getting published is not a lottery, with a modicum of effort you can dramatically increase your odds. While agents and authors get a ton of queries, 90% of them (or more) are awful. If you have done a decent amount of research on how to write a good query, you are already in the top 10%. It means that if you write a good book and are persistent in your efforts you have a good chance of getting published. Lots of brand new authors get published every year. You may not get published on your first try or even your second, but in the words of mystery author JA Konrath, “There’s a word for a writer who never give up . . . published.”

4) Hone your craft. Nothing bugs me more than authors who think they are so good at writing they no longer need to improve. Any truly good author improves over time. They improve because they work at it—they attend classes, the go to conferences, they join critique groups, they read, read, read, (analyzing the work of other authors they admire,) and most importantly they write all the time.

Going back to my analogy of painting and the piano; would you expect to be a concert pianist or a world class painter after on the first try? Why then do so many people expect to master the art of writing on their first try? Does it happen? Sure. Then again, people get hit by meteorites too, but I haven’t gone out pricing meteorite insurance lately. The best way to improve your writing is by writing.

Finally, don't give up. Don't give up because of rejection--the best authors have stacks of 'em. Don't give up because you think your writing stinks--I don't know of a single author who doesn't think their writing stinks at some point. Don't give up because you are just a homemaker, student, janitor, not a real author. I even know of a dorky accountant who actually managed to get published. And definitely don't give up because some windbag of a writing teacher tells you you should.


14 Comments:

At 7/09/2007 2:37 PM, Blogger Worldbuilder Robin said...

Thanks for the encouragement. As a hopeful author with a completed roughdraft of a novel (that needs some serious work), it's good to know that all that stuff my teachers fed me about not succeeding as a writer is to be taken with a grain of salt (or two).

And yes, I write because I love to write and don't expect to make a ton of money from it, at least not any time soon. I just wish it were easier for me to get the writing done in a timely manner. That, and some solid advice on how to get it published once I'm to that stage...

 
At 7/09/2007 2:47 PM, Anonymous robisonwells said...

A-freaking-men.

There are few things that bother me more--within the LDS market specifically, but about writing generally--than people who seem to think that making no money is just fine with them.

Like you said, you should write because you love to write--that should be first. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with setting your sights on something more.

 
At 7/09/2007 3:56 PM, Blogger James Dashner said...

Never once have I listened to the pundits who told me you could never make a dime writing. In one ear, out the other. I hope they're still having fun teaching that at their lame conferences.

To tell people at a writer's conference that they better do it because they love it is like telling people at a boat show that if they hate boats, they better up and leave right now, mister!

Let those who settle for less wallow in misery. As for the rest of us, we'll set our sights high and achieve greatness.

 
At 7/09/2007 4:12 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

One more resounding amen here! I had a long journey to finally getting published, and I was bound and determined to do it. Instead of taking to heart a college professor's pessimism (the same thing you just expressed--no one in our class would ever get published. Now let's write . . .), I kept in mind a quote I heard once that's similar to Konrath's--how if you just outlast all the other wannabe writers who give up, you'll eventually make it.

And by golly, I did. :)

 
At 7/09/2007 4:33 PM, Blogger dakwegmo said...

Just remember, most people teaching writing classes are authors trying to get published, too. They're just trying to eliminate the competition. ;-)

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." -- Les Brown

 
At 7/09/2007 4:38 PM, Blogger Josi said...

It would take a lot of money to make writing worth it if the only measuring stick is monetary, but if you write book after book you'll be pretty discouraged not to make some $$ off of it.

Most high income professionals spent years getting degrees, training and eventually having it pay off, I'm not sure why so many of us writers expect something different? Remember the tortoise and the hare?

Great blog and excellent reminders, Jeff.

 
At 7/09/2007 5:07 PM, Blogger ali said...

Jeff that was an excellent blog and I wholeheartedly agree. I am not yet a published author, but I'm having a ton of fun writing and dreaming!

I have to add too, that I was told by a voice prof in university that I had no talent for singing and should just give up. I believed her for a time, but I'm here to say that eventually I decided 'to heck with her!' and went on to have a very fruitful and rewarding (albeit short) career as an Opera Singer. So there!

Just goes to show that dreams CAN come true if you're willing to work ... and work ... and work.

"Never give up! Never Surrender!" (can't remember the character, but it's from Galaxy Quest)

Thanks Jeff!

 
At 7/09/2007 6:56 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Ali,

That would be Jason Nesmith, but I can't remember his Captain name.

Jeff,

You expect us to believe that even a dorky accountant can get published? Now, I know you write fiction, but that's a little beyond what I can believe.

 
At 7/09/2007 9:10 PM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

Great post. You should find a short skirt and get some pom-poms for the next conference!

And, maybe you should have a contest to see if we can name that dorky accountant ;)

 
At 7/10/2007 1:06 AM, Blogger Tamra Norton said...

Ames-Jay Ashner-Day. And he's taking us all out to Taco Bell when he makes the NYT bestsellers list next spring!

I'll take a Burrito Supreme.

Inspiring words, Jeff!

 
At 7/10/2007 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. You are the sage of the LDS Writing circuit. thanks for the encouragement.

 
At 7/10/2007 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, that last comment was from me sorry I didn't sign it.
Keith Fisher

 
At 7/10/2007 1:33 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

It's not just the writing classes--they say the same thing in drama classes, college team sports, and whatever classes you take if you think you want to be president of the US.

If immediate money is your only motivation for writing, you need to pick another career. But if you love it, go for the gold. I agree--somebody is going to make the NYT list. Might as well be you. I mean, me.

 
At 7/12/2007 6:50 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

It happened to me. I took a creative writing & publishing class several years ago when I first decided to get serious about writing my first book. The instructor basically ripped on stay-at-home moms trying to write novels to earn extra cash. (If it was about the cash, I'd get a real job). Of course the minute someone tells me I can't do something, that's when I do it. LOL.

 

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