An email rolled into my inbox right at the end of November, and the email said this:
Hey man, I’m a big fan of yours and have been following your stuff since I was a kid. I’m 24 now, have just finished my Master’s in Creative Writing, and am seeking an agent for my fantasy novel which I’ve just finished.
I’m a couple of rejection letters deep at this point. Disheartening, as I’m sure you can remember, but I’m far, far from giving up yet. I write every day and take the craft of writing more seriously than, well, almost everything.
I just wanted to reach out to you and maybe get some advice on what I should be doing at this point in my career. Making it as a full-time writer is on my mind every day; my eyes are firmly set on this goal and they haven’t drifted – though at times it seems like an impossible thing to accomplish. After years of practising (and sucking), I am now confident in my skills and my ideas. The experience of writing a novel has honestly shocked me – it’s been exciting, tedious, frustrating, and immensely fulfiling all at once.
And I thought, instead of responding to this person individually, I would respond to him publicly (I asked him if that was okay, to be clear).
My easy, fast answer to this is, “YES, GOOD JOB,” because on a cursory read, hey, everything looks good. He writes a lot. He’s finished a book. He’s mindful of the work and the career. He’s right on about writing a book — exciting, yep. Tedious, sometimes. Frustrating, ha ha, oh shit, yeah. Immensely fulfilling? I certainly find it so, sure.
But I have deeper thoughts, too, if he — and you — care to listen.
a) “…have been following your stuff since I was a kid.”
OKAY SLOW YOUR ROLL, YOUNG MC — you’re only 24 and have been reading me since you were a kid? I’ve only been writing novels for 5-6 years now, jeez. Though I did work in gaming for years before that… oh god I’m getting older, aren’t I? Oh shit. Ohhhh shit. *cups hands over mouth* *eyes wide as pancakes* *quiet panic ensues*
b) “I’m 24 now.”
Actually, let’s hover over that number — 24. You’ve just finished a novel. Good! GOOD. That’s commendable work. You may very well be a talented, eager, and capable lad. But I want you also to realize that your brownies might still need to stay in the oven a while. I don’t know this. I haven’t read your book. But I’d argue most writers don’t really come into their own until their 30s — that’s not to say there are not a number of wunderkind who karate kick open the doors of publishing with their spry, energetic 24-year-old bodies, but at 24, you’re probably very limited, yet, in what you know, in what you’ve done. At 24, your brain literally stopped growing only a couple-few years before, and your heart is still a kettle of excitable fish. You don’t yet know what you know. But you expect to know everything.
You believe, at that age, you should have the world saddled up and already frothy with both vigor and distance. You expect to be miles down the road.
And yet, you’re not.
Here, then, is what I consider to be one of the more crucial tests of being a writer — it is the ability to dig in, demonstrate patience, and keep doing the thing specifically because you realize you’re not ready to do the thing.
What I mean is this: a lot of writers, at this stage, do as you have done. But then this happens: I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. I HAVE RECEIVED THE REJECTIONS. I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE DISHEARTENMENT AND ENNUI. THE WORLD DOES NOT UNDERSTAND MY VERBAL AND NARRATIVE PUISSANCE, AND SO I SHALL REJECT IT BEFORE IT CAN REJECT ME FURTHER.
They fuck off.
They fuck right off, and choose not to admit that they’re unready, but rather, they project it onto the rest of the world. Publishing isn’t ready. The audience isn’t ready.
NOBODY UNDERSTANDS MY GENIUS, MAN.
Now, Guy Who Wrote Me That E-Mail, I’m not saying that’s you! But it is a trap some young writers fall into. I certainly almost fell into it myself. Even older, more experienced writers can experience it from time to time.
The greatest gift you can give yourself is patience — and, should patience fail, give yourself the gift of its darker, crankier cousin:
Bullheaded, spiteful stubbornness.
When one book fails, you write the next book.
As your failures pile up, you use that hill to climb to the next level.
c) “A couple of rejection letters”
Ha ha ha, ohhh, hah. Hah. Hee. Yeah. Yeaaaahhh. You’re going to get a lot more of those. You need to get a lot more of those. Rejections are normal. I still get rejections. Since publishing books I’ve written a couple books that just weren’t ready to go out into the world. I have so many rejection letters from my 20s into my 30s I could literally wallpaper my writing shed, inside and out. I could use them to make a siege engine. I could make ten thousand origami swans. I could burn them for warmth and it would provide me with seven years of reliable heat.
Rejections, however terrible, are your friend.
Rejections are scars; proof you’ve been fighting in the arena.
Let them frustrate you. Then do better the next time.
d) “Making it as a full-time writer”
This isn’t the worst goal, but it’s a distant one. Most authors have day jobs. I don’t, because I spent years in the freelance trenches, and once I ejected from that, I got really, really lucky. One day I may need to go back — though, let’s be honest, at this point I have winnowed my skill-sets down to “mashing action figures together to make them fight-and-or-fuck and then I write all fancy about it,” so I’m not sure what kind of job I could even get.
Regardless, let the goal be writing a good book and getting it out there.
Then do it again, and again.
Only worry about the “full-time author” thing when you have no other choice — when you are forced into a position where you can either keep the day job or keep writing books. When that happens, you disengage from the day-job, and you leap into the warm, dark void.
e) “I am now confident in my skills and ideas.”
Oh, you should be able to write with confidence.
But you also shouldn’t be married to that confidence.
So, this is a weird one, because there’s a line here, and it’s a thin line, but you should try to tap-dance merrily upon it — you don’t want to be overconfident, and you don’t want to be flailing around a pool of under-confidence, either. Overconfidence means you make mistakes. It means you don’t grow because you believe you’re already all growned up. It means you view failure as someone else’s fault rather than your own. Under-confidence means you don’t think you can do it, so maybe, potentially, you just don’t do it.
Gotta walk that line, thin as it may be. Be sure in yourself while at the same time admitting you’ve still so much to learn. Writers possess a peculiar kind of ego, I find — we seem sometimes to have a big presence, a bloated ego, but soon you realize it’s more like a balloon than a wrecking ball. It’s puffy and large and ultimately empty inside. Better instead to have the ego of a small stone. A small stone is small, yes, and small in comparison to the many other stones around it. But it can also be potent in the right hands — it can break windows, it can be slung into the skull of a giant, it can, uhh, what else could you do with a small stone? Choke a bear? Let’s go with that: choke a bear.
The good news is, Dear E-Mailer, if you find the writing of a novel exciting, frustrating, tedious and fulfilling in equal measure, then I suspect you’ve at the very least got the proper mind-set to really do this thing. Just know that doing this thing is not a one-and-done measure.
It’s not about getting a degree and writing a book and then just cashing those sweet checks. It might mean getting a day-job. It might mean writing two, five, seven more novels before you really hit on your voice, your skills, or even figuring out what the fuck you actually want to write. It might mean growing up more than you already are. It might mean endless more rejections, failure after failure, where after each you have to salvage some lesson, some truth, some kind of windy wisdom that will fill your sails and move your boat further upon this seemingly silent and often still sea. It means doing the thing even when doing the thing is hard. Harder this time than the last. Maybe even harder the next time you try.
But try, you must.
Onward you go.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.