I am one of the lucky individuals who can truly say I love what I do for work. To be clear, my day job is a Software Engineer (i.e. programmer). I have been programming since 2000 and I still enjoy it immensely. As any other programmer will know, it is not only technical but also highly creative.
One important lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are times when I have to put aside the fun stuff, at least exclusively, and get into areas I’m not as comfortable with. Proposal writing. Technical documentation. Training classes. Timesheets. Project plans. Milestone development. Personnel paperwork. Tedious and/or legal tasks that can make some people feel that their entire workstation is buried in red tape. I’ve learned to be good at these things, but don’t enjoy them as much as making a SharePoint site dance.
It is a natural instinct to feel that when we are doing these “side” tasks, that we are really not doing our “true” work. We feel as if we are burdened with extra fluff that simply takes our time away from doing what we’re good at, which we incidentally enjoy. This is as much a myth in programming as it appears to be in writing. We tend to stay so focused on the core task that we forget about all of the pieces that support it. More importantly, we don’t remember that the core piece cannot exist without the supporting pieces. In programming, I might observe that it’s no good to make your user’s SharePoint site dance if they don’t know how to use it.
I believe I’m learning that writing is no different.
As I explained in my previous post, I had no idea what I didn’t know when I started writing. I figured that I had a rock-solid 5-step plan:
- Write book
- Let my friends read it
- Make minor corrections based on their feedback
- Enjoy huge success
You may think I’m joking, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not. I figured that you wrote from your heart, and it either came out good or bad. That was it.
Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, and try to say that I now think writing and publishing is impossible. I do admit, though, I have been on an emotional roller coaster during this short initial “discovery phase” where I have been swinging from “I’m a genius” to “I’m throwing this in the trash” several times in one day. I gave up, I got motivated, I felt it was impossible, I felt it was inevitable. Up and down, day after day.
I still haven’t landed, but right now I’m trying to stay away from the “give up” side. I’m trying to hang on to hope.
What I’m struggling with right now is conflicting information about how realistic it is to get published, and just what goes in to the writing process. Almost all blogs I’m reading say that writing is a skill and writing is a business. To the above point, there will be times when you have to mix the “fun” part of writing with the “not so fun” part. What I’m referring to here about the “not so fun” is mostly directed towards the self-editing process, for the moment, which I will detail in another post (I’m only just learning about it). Just like in programming or any other business, no matter how great your product is, it does you no good if nobody buys it.
To throw yet another analogy here, let’s imagine your company needed to buy 10 widgets before you could finish construction on your new annex. It is your job to decide which 10 widgets will make the cut. The issue comes in when you realize that 300,000 companies all make widgets and are all sending you requests to show you their widgets, and you have to pick the winning 10 in two weeks. Not only is it a near monumental task to sift through 300,000 emails, but how do you pick out from those emails the 200 “finalists” that you will request a product sample from? (Let’s further pretend they are not allowed to include a picture of the widget) Obviously you can’t get a sample widget from all 300,000 companies, right? My gosh, can you just imagine? So in your 300,000 emails, you need to pick out the 200 that “shine” the brightest. You probably won’t even get half-way down the email before you decide to move on to the next email.
I am sensing that it is even worse for publishers and literary agents. At least in my fake example, all of the companies that make the widgets are in business, and so must already sell widgets. That says that the widgets have to be at least mostly legit. Not so in writing – take myself for example. When I submit to a agent at then end of this process – which I will – I will be an author with no previous publications. It’s like submitting your widget if you’re not even a company yet; not a single soul ever purchased your widget. In writing, this is totally alright; agents and publishers do sign up new authors all the time – albeit usually carefully.
My point is this – you could have a fantastic, award-winning story. You could have potential. But if you are not one of the 200 widgets that stand out from the 300,000, you will never be a finalist. And if you’re a finalist, and you submit your widget, if it’s the least bit flawed compared to the other widgets, yours will not make the final cut.
Therefore, if you truly want to get published, you can try one of two things:
- Write your story with blinders on, as I started out doing, and assume you will be the one in a million exception. The exception that your story is so amazingly original that even if it’s very rough, it will still stand out. If you go this route, please buy me some lottery tickets, too.
- Realize that writing is a business, and take it as seriously as a business. Learn the strategies and tips of story writing that make agents and publishers go “ooh, aah” and use that during your writing. Note, so very many sites I’m coming across focus more on the “query” (initial contact with agent) than on the book, but likely they are equally important.
So, it appears that I’ve answered my question: “Fun, or Work?” It’s both. Have fun with it, but realize it’s a business; this means you can’t do it exactly as you originally thought you might. It won’t be as easy, because you’ll have to – gasp – work at it.
Now, am I done? Nope. Every single article I’ve read about writing has made the above argument, and for me, I will listen to this wise advice. However, there is also one very seemingly contradictory opinion from my all-time favorite author whom I trust. Terry Goodkind, author of the bestselling Sword of Truth series, says the following on Terry Goodkind’s website FAQ page:
“[educational books about writing] have valuable information on learning the craft and business aspect of writing. To a greater or lesser extent, we’ve all had to learn the craft of writing. That much can be learned.
Ultimately, though, here is my sincere conviction: I believe that real writers are born writers. I do not believe that the intellectual aspects which are critical to good writing can be taught. You either are a writer, or you are not.”
Elsewhere in the same page he notes, on the subject of preparing for submission:
“I always think it is best to put your best foot forward, to make anything you do the best you can do. However, a piece of plastic polished to a high luster will never be worth a diamond in the rough. Any publisher would take the diamond in the rough because they know that with a little work a rough diamond can be made into something extremely valuable […]”
So with that, I’m going to take the middle of the road approach. I’m going to, as Terry Goodkind advises, put my best foot forward. I will hope that others will see me as a natural, and that I have found that rough diamond. But I’m going to work hard to do so.
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