Just One Editor’s Opinion
By Vonnie Winslow Crist
This is the first tale of perseverance I usually tell a writers’ group or classroom. It’s not a pretty tale, and alas, it is only one among many moments in my writing and illustration career where good old-fashion determination opened a door. Or in this case, a magazine page.
I’d already had several dozen poems published in literary and speculative (science-fiction, fantasy, horror) magazines in both the USA and UK when I started to submit fiction. My stories were very short at the time – barely drifting to word counts above the flash fiction level. Still, it was a big step for me to leave the comfortable poetry niche and venture into the unknown world of prose.
When you have even slight success publishing your writing (which you can cheerfully list in your cover letter), many people think all of your worries vanish. I’m here to tell you, “Nope!”
Whether you’ve had one story or 100 published, the acceptance or rejection letter will most likely be based on one editor’s opinion. What if the editor is having a bad day when they read your submission? What if the editor has a cold or their babysitter didn’t show up or they had a fight with their mom or a deer ate their bean plants or… Well, you get the idea.
Let’s get back to the story: I’d completed an odd tale about animal crackers. Using a market source similar to www.ralan.com , I’d found several markets which sounded like they might be a good fit for “Animal Crackers.”
I carefully typed (yes, I’m talking a typewriter) a copy of “Animal Crackers” along with a cover letter. Then, I folded the 6 pages of white paper in thirds, and slipped the submission along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope into an envelope carefully addressed to a small press speculative magazine published in New England.
How do I know it was six pages? In those days, you could send a cover letter, a 5-page story (or 5 poems), and a SASE for one stamp. If you sent 7 pages or used really “good” paper, then the envelope was too heavy and you needed to get it weighed at the post office. (I live in a rural area, so the Post Office is not close).
While I waited to hear from New England Editor, I worked on other stories and poems. About 10 days later, my SASE arrived in my mailbox. Hoping for an acceptance, I opened the envelope and read one editor’s opinion of my story. I will paraphrase, but rest assured this is nearly a word-for-word rejection letter:
“Dear Mr. Crist (yes, I am a Ms.), This is to inform you we won’t be using ‘Animal Crackers.’ It is a terrible story, and I see no value in your writing. Please do not send anything else to us. In fact, I would encourage you to stop writing and find something else to do with your time. Regards, New England Editor”
For a minute, maybe 2, I felt like crying. The rejection note was personal and unkind. What sort of person would write such a mean rejection? Then, I did what I’ve done many times since, I sat up straight and looked up the next magazine on my list of prospective publishers for “Animal Crackers.”
New England Editor had returned my story in excellent condition: no tears, no coffee stains, no smell of cigarettes – so I didn’t even retype the story. I wrote a new (though nearly identical) cover letter to Virginia Editor, slipped it and the story along with a SASE into an envelope and sent it to the next small press magazine on my list. Then, I went back to work on other stories and poems.
About 10 days later, my SASE arrived in my mailbox. I opened the envelope and read one editor’s opinion of my story. I will paraphrase, but again, this is nearly a word-for-word acceptance letter:
“Dear Ms. Crist, This is to inform you we will be using ‘Animal Crackers.’ It is a wonderful story. Please send us more of your work for future issues. You should receive your contributor’s copy in about 6 weeks. Best Wishes, Virginia Editor.”
So why an acceptance the 2nd time around? Both Editor #1 and #2 were male and about the same age, ran a speculative small press magazine, paid in free copies, and had similar circulation numbers. Both editors had professional credentials of about the same level.
The difference between a nasty rejection and a gushing acceptance letter was simply: One Editor’s Opinion. Whether an editor loves your work or hates it often has nothing to do with your writing. It can have everything to do with the editor and what’s going on in their life. Or perhaps, the editor has just accepted a story thematically similar to yours or maybe they have a prejudice against stories told in the first-person or they only have room for a 2,500-word tale or…
Rejection letters are not something to shed tears over, rather they should challenge you to submit again (and again and again if necessary). You need to believe in your writing. Let me repeat that, you need to believe in your writing. Double-check for errors (or coffee stains) and submit rejected work to another editor. Because in the end, it’s just one editor’s opinion.
Vonnie Winslow Crist’s poems, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Italy, Spain, Finland, Australia, Canada, the UK and USA. Her YA fantasy novel, “The Enchanted Skean,” was a 2014 Compton Crook Award Finalist, and both of her recent story collections, “Owl Light” and “The Greener Forest,” were voted Top Ten Books in the P&E Readers Poll. A Pushcart nominee and 2-times Writers of the Future Honorable Mention winner, Vonnie’s stories regularly appear in speculative anthologies and magazines.
A few years ago, I had reached an all-time low. I had recently finished my two-book contract and the publisher declined book three (given that they had announced it as a duology, I was not especially surprised), and my agent stopped responding to phone calls, including the message I left which said it sounded like I should be looking for a new agent. I guess that’s one way to unload clients, if not a very professional one.
During this slow-motion career nosedive, I had tried, and failed to write anything new. I did have one project I really believed in, but my agent’s inability to sell it (or perhaps even to submit it, it’s hard to say) had undercut my faith in what I felt to be the best book I had ever written. And if your best book isn’t good enough, well, you’re screwed. I started a few other projects and played around with some ideas I liked, but nothing seemed to stick.
The absolute nadir came at the World Fantasy Convention that year, when a friend of mine had just sold in a Major Deal to an editor I hoped to work with, and had his work praised in the exact terms I had envisioned for myself. Seriously—imagining your success in great detail is supposed to be a good motivator, but when it seems that this detailed success is bestowed on another, well, you kinda think about finding a different career. Outside Sales, for instance, starts to seem much less soul-killing. Then, just to rub it in, the one meal I had outside the con, meeting up with family in a distant restaurant—that same friend was dining at the next table, positively glowing. No, I did not pick up my steak knife and apply it to one or both of us. I think I even managed to convey some enthusiasm for his success.
But that night at the hotel, I knew I had to turn it around. Sure, this contract hadn’t worked out, and that agent had left me worse off than I would have been—I couldn’t do anything about the past—but I could still take charge of the future. That had to begin with the present, but what to do? I re-read my other project and decided it was still worthy. I could not find an agent to take me on, so I shrugged and started submitting to publishers on my own. What did I have to lose?
The fact that I wasn’t writing, however, troubled me even more. If this project didn’t sell, where would I be? I had nothing else to offer, and I still couldn’t get traction on a new project. Note to self, and others: one of the signs of depression is that you can no longer enjoy the things you used to love, like writing, for example. The simple act of writing no longer brought comfort, hope and energy.
I was griping—er—commiserating with a friend who was in a similar place. Wanted to write, couldn’t get the momentum. How about a challenge? But how do two people who feel totally incapable challenge each other? We agreed on a hundred words. We could write a hundred words a day—that’s like one paragraph, less than half a page. After all, we still called ourselves writers. And when we had finished our hundred words, we would email each other. If we hadn’t heard from the other person, we could nudge, cajole and taunt them until the one hundred words were done.
Picture a steam engine starting out from the station. It starts out real slow, the wheels rotating just a few words at a time. I struggled those first few days, as if I were hauling a string of boxcars up a mountainside. Then, after a while, I wrote a couple hundred words, then a thousand, then—as I used to do a long time before—I started losing track, simply writing, not worrying about my count, but getting into the flow, racing out across the plains, full steam ahead. I was writing again.
Soon after this breakthrough, I was not only writing again, but I had an offer from a publisher—then an agent (funny, how quickly they respond when you have an offer on the table)—then a contract for the series that is The Dark Apostle.
I dragged myself back from the brink, with a little help from my friend, and by remembering what it was that I loved: not the contracts, nor the agents, not the praise, nor the publishing, but the writing that still lies at the heart of it all. There are always a thousand aspects of your world you can’t control, but when you claim responsibility for the things that you can, pick yourself up and keep working, that’s when the dream can come true.
E.C. Can be found online here: thedarkapostle.com/books
My Inglorious Writing Career
by Christie Maurer
I first started writing in 1951 at age 14—a spy story while my father and I were visiting my uncle after my mother’s funeral.
I held my firstborn book in my hand in July 2013. I knew I had to write, and if people couldn’t relate to my stories then I could improve them.
My parents wanted me to be a teacher, but I feared 4-year college and went to secretarial school. I ended up in the Pink Ghetto despite a BA in Creative Writing from Goddard College (1959-61) and an MPA from Cal State Hayward (1979-82).
At Goddard I wrote Novel #1 and did a study on Proust and Impressionism. Finished midyear, cast off 200 years of New England heritage and took a Greyhound across the country.
January 1, 1962 I arrived in L.A. and got a job as editorial secretary for a quarterly journal at UCLA. There I corrected spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, copy-fitted, formatted, marked type, proofread. At home I rewrote and submitted Novel #1 and got rejections. I joined a writers’ group. BTW We scheduled a writing get-away at Big Bear Lake on the weekend of 11/22/63 and listened to the Kennedy Assassination instead.
A novel writing class at UCLA Extension indicated that Novel #1 needed a total rewrite. That was B.C. (Before Computers) and I couldn’t face it. I quit and soaked up the 60s—Beatles, Carl Jung and dream work.
August 1971 God’s foot landed on my backside. In three days I ditched 9 years in L.A., found a job at UCSC Extension and a guy with a flatbed to move me. On my balcony up in The Valley, surrounded by redwoods, the river down below, I knew I was home.
A friend suggested I write my personal myths. I wrote up a few dreams as stories but didn’t know how to market them. Thirty years later, after several hundred rewrites, I sold “A Maiden’s Heart” (formerly “After the Dragons were Slain”) for $5 to mytholog.com.
By 1978 I’d written Sir Lancealot and the Had-Been Princess, a 17,300 word “novel” but had no idea how to sell it. I had no idea about world building either, but that piece contains the story outline, characters, and themes of my current WIP.
I went to journal workshops and “saw” images during meditation exercises that told stories—like the last true High Priestess, exiled to die alone in the desert.
In the mid 80s my boss put a computer on my desk. Come to Mama! I blew a wad on a 50 lb. “portable” and rewrote The Novel, called variously Sir Loriano and the Had-Been Princess, Troubadour, or Dragon Gold. By 1989 it had been rejected by every Sci-Fi and Fantasy publisher in the country. I gave up.
1991 during a meditation exercise at a journal workshop, the High Priestess appeared: “Do it! —Or Else!” (Yes, Mother.) I discovered Writers’ Market and sent out short stories. Two were accepted in tiny, typo-ridden publications. The only novel writing-group I found was the local Romance Writers of America chapter. At the first meeting I learned why every publisher in the country had rejected my novel. I joined and learned fiction-writing Kindergarten level up—plotting, dialogue, character development, motivation, conflict, etc. And “how to be a writer” (synopses, partials, agents, submissions, editors). I went to conferences and workshops, Sci-Fi Cons, joined professional level SF&F critique groups. The Novel grew branches and assumed multiple shapes.
I retired in fall 1995 and by spring 1996 The Novel was 142,000 words, entitled The Dark Lady’s Troubadour. I had synopses and draft chapters for The Dark Lady’s Servant (prequel) and The Dark Lady’s Priestess (sequel). I found an agent (didn’t work out), and connected with a NY editor (ditto).
2002 I joined Broad Universe and went to ConJose.
2005 I found a superb critique group and began doing NaNoWriMo where I wrote out my beloved Ancient World stories about Karié, the last true High Priestess.
2007-08 I tossed off the 6,000 word “Dark Lady’s Stone” as an introduction to Troubadour. I was implementing my critique group’s suggestions when a shaman appeared and transformed it into a 113,000 word novel. I committed writer-heresy and started submitting to e-presses, and collected rejections.
Writing saves my life. The Fall –7/18/11—broken femur, steel plate, Rehab. I lost so much muscle I couldn’t stand even after months of PT—the Cadillac of wheelchairs. Dreams of Death standing at the foot of my bed. (FYI he looks like an East Indian weight lifter.)
I got out my MacBook Air, chugity-chug to Starbuck’s in my wheelchair, and opened up my rewrite of Dark Lady’s Troubadour. Words, characters, and story unfolding under my cursor reconnected me to Life. I followed up on submissions of Dark Lady’s Stone)—“almost but not quite” rejections. I kept submitting and in 2012 sold stories, “Heritage” to White Cat Press and “Whitewood Kitarra” to American Athenaeum’s Sword & Saga.
Winter 2013 I awoke in the dark sensing I wouldn’t live until summer. Too many people die before they’ve fulfilled their lifetime ambitions and mine was been to hold my book in my hand.
SCREW THEM ALL! I’LL SELF-PUBLISH!
A week after I found a free-lance editor and cover artist I started bleeding profusely. Three doctors said Cancer. I wrote back cover copy while recovering from surgery. Then the pathologist said, “Benign.” A week later I came down with pneumonia. Some nights I didn’t know if I’d wake up. I did.
I loved the cover and my freelance editor loved the book—why hadn’t somebody published it? I called back skills learned in the early 60s and formatted both print and e-editions myself.
When I held that firstborn book, The Dark Lady’s Stone, in my hand, I wept.
Selling is another matter altogether.
You can follow Christie’s blog here.
Our next guest blogger is the amazing, New York Times Bestselling Author, Maria V. Snyder, whom I got to know through Seton Hill University. Her newest book “Shadow Study” just came out. Maria’s website and contact information is below her entry.
My very first writing attempt was while I attended Penn State University as an undergraduate meteorology major. I started a science fiction novel about a girl who had just graduated college and was scuba diving off the coast of Florida. She gets “sucked” into the future while underwater. You see the people of the future were starving because of all the animal extinctions and they used time travel to bring food to their world. Not a bad premise for a SF story, but the execution…awful! The attempt was abandoned after one chapter.
When I graduated Penn State, I found employment as an environmental meteorologist for a consulting firm. Work came in waves and during the “lulls” I started writing cheesy SF short stories. I attended a writing conference in Philadelphia and submitted one of them to a professor who was teaching the short story workshop. The professor provided feedback and gave me a 7 out of 10 possible points. I asked her if I had any talent and she said the 7 was one of the higher marks. Thrilled, I kept writing. If she had told me I didn’t have an aptitude for writing, I would have stopped and found something else to do!
I tried to sell my short stories to the various short story magazines like Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Nothing sold. Eventually I sparked on an idea for a fantasy novel about a poison taster and began writing. During this time, I took classes and attended writing conferences all to learn about the craft and business of writing. I also found a writing critique group and they were wonderful with feedback and providing motivation. I wrote one chapter a month so I had something to handout to my critique group.
When I finished Poison Study, I revised it a couple times and thought I had a pretty good story. I sent it to literary agents first. Forty agents rejected it. Then I made a list of publishers who accepted unagented submissions. The list had 20 markets. Starting with number 1, I mailed what they requested (mostly the first 3 chapters and a synopsis). The rejections rolled in. One after the other. Lots of ice cream and chocolate therapy ensued. ;)
While the rejections piled up on my desk, I considered doing other types of writing. In June 2003, I submitted a bunch of non-fiction article ideas to a number of local magazines, I applied to Seton Hill University’s graduate school for a Masters in writing (I liked to teach so maybe I could teach writing), I submitted a proposal to write a thirty-year history of a local candy company, and I sent Poison Study to this new imprint at Harlequin called LUNA Books – they were number eighteen on my list of publishers – I only had two left and I was determined to send my book to them all.
All summer I waited for replies. Nothing. September came and went without a single letter or phone call. Was this a sign that writing wasn’t my thing? Should I go back to meteorology?
I’ll never forget October 3, 2003. Never! The phone rings and a woman with a British accent is on the other end. At first, I thought it was for my husband since his job takes him all over the world, but she asks for me. She’s an editor with LUNA Books and loves Poison Study. Blink. Blink. Blink. Excuse me, but could you say that again? She wants to buy Poison Study and a second book. I have a second right? Uh…Yes, of course! (actually no, but I had a year to write what would become Magic Study).
Happy dances ensued and squeally phone calls to my husband, mother, neighbor, and strangers—yes, I was that excited. What a wonderful feeling and how could life get any better? Well…the next week I received a phone call from an editor at Harrisburg Magazine. She loved my article ideas and could I write four articles for her. Uh…sure. No problem! Then a letter arrived soon after. Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to graduate school! Wow, that’s…er…fantastic. Another phone call announced that my proposal to write the candy company’s history has been accepted. Here’s money, go write the book! Gulp!
You know the expression, “someday your ship will come in” – well, in October 2003, a whole flotilla arrived and my port was full! Amazing!
One piece of advice that I heard over and over again during all that time was persistence and I really didn’t think it’d work, but in my case it did! Persistence also helped me to write all those articles, finish Magic Study, research the candy company, and attend graduate school.
You’d think an acceptance of my novel would have given me more confidence for writing fiction, but Poison Study had been rejected fifty-seven times, and, in the back of my mind, I suspected LUNA Books only bought it to be nice. Yes, I know it was silly, but that was how I thought until I attended Book Expo in New York City the summer before Poison Study was published. Not only was my editor excited about the book, but the sales team was gushing, the PR staff was thrilled, and the Barnes & Noble book buyer stopped to talk to me. It was fantastic and it made me realized that they weren’t being “nice” and that I had talent.
I continued to write and teach. My thirteenth novel, Shadow Study was just released, and I have also published seventeen short stories, and dozens of articles. I’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list, won eight awards, and my books have been translated into sixteen languages.
So my career is well established and I don’t ever receive rejections anymore. Right? Wrong! I still get rejections for my novel ideas and short stories. I’m determined to have a short story published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction before I die! And a short creative non-fiction piece of mine was just rejected by Seton Hill’s literacy magazine! My bruised ego didn’t hurt too long as they did accept a couple of my photographs. But still!
Now I’m working on novel number fourteen and it’s a huge lumbering beast – I wish I could tell you writing gets easier with success, but it doesn’t. In fact, now I worry about disappointing my readers and writing the same plot over and over again. But I look at my stack of books and think, I did this before and I can do it again, just keep on persisting, keep on putting the words down.
And don’t give up. Ever!
Our second post is by Michael Potts. Now, I don’t know Michael other than through the e-mail loop for Odyssey grads and Facebook, but I’m naturally inclined to like him just because he has a cat named Pippin! Favourite hobbits aside, I have been following Michael on Facebook, and I have enjoyed seeing him achieve success, and I knew many authors can relate to what he’s been through.
by Michael Potts
A small press rejects your novel manuscript without comment. Inquiries to agents run into a dead end. You receive an impersonal e-mail from a novel contest listing the finalists, but your manuscript is not included. Other writers tell you, “Get used to rejection. Make a collage of rejection letters on your wall. Even the best writers were rejected many times.” Often that advice is not enough for you to get over the emotional downturns of more and more rejections. You begin to rationalize: “The system is rigged in favor of established writers” or “The editors are too picky,” or “Editors are evil.” You may become so discouraged that you give up on writing altogether.
My first piece of advice to a writer with these struggles is, “Keep writing. Work on improving your craft. Participate in workshops. Read books on writing. Read as much as you can in your genre.” You do these things and have no luck. Why not give up?
My submissions have been rejected many times. I have been discouraged to the point of thinking, “Why do I waste my time with creative writing. I am well-published in academic writing—I should focus on that.” Yet I persevered, and that perseverance paid off in the case of e my first novel, the Southern fiction novel, End of Summer.
Initially I was excited about writing a novel. In 2005, I completed 90% of the first draft in ten days spent at the Weymouth Center in North Carolina, a beautiful, quiet place to write. Charlotte Rains Dixon, an excellent editor, edited the manuscript. I took a fiction writing class at the university where I teach philosophy, and my colleague Michael Colonnese edited the manuscript gain. I knew the book was good—of course not to the level of two of my chief influences, James Agee and Ray Bradbury, but quality literary fiction.
When I tried to get the novel published, I did not go the agent route, but sent the book to a variety of small presses specializing in Southern fiction. All rejected the manuscript without comment. Then I turned to the contest route and focused on contests friendly to Southern fiction. The result, again, was rejection without comment. I tried tweaking the novel to make it better. The result was more rejection. Finally, I decided to set the manuscript aside for good, forget about sending it anywhere else, and work on other projects.
The manuscript rested in peace for two years on top of a bookcase at home. In January 2010, almost five years after the first draft was completed, I attended a conference sponsored by the Writers’ Loft program (now called MTSU Writers) from which I had graduated four years before. A group of small press editors spoke about their presses and the kind of books they published. After the presentations I approached Mike Parker, who owns WordCrafts Press, a small press in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I bought two books published by the press and struck up a conversation, making sure I mentioned that “I have a manuscript of a novel.” Mike was interested, and I made my pitch. He invited me to send him the manuscript. About two months later, he replied that the selection committee would accept the novel if I changed the point of view from third person limited omniscient to first person. I agreed and did so. In November 2010 WordCrafts press published End of Summer. In the process the book went through another thorough edit, and the designer at WordCrafts Press designed a beautiful cover that is perfect for the book. My dream of being a published fiction author was fulfilled.
That success opened other doors for me at WordCrafts Press. In 2014 it published my horror novel, Unpardonable Sin. It also published a nonfiction book, Aerobics for the Mind: Practical Exercises in Philosophy that Anybody Can Do. Both books were well-edited well and have beautiful covers—and good content. My perseverance in not giving up as a writer, in continuing to go to writing conferences, paid off.
I have heard writers speaking at workshops say that the difference between a successful author and a failed author is perseverance. In the context of writing, “perseverance” means continuing to write despite rejection, continuing to attend conferences and workshops, and always seeking new opportunities for publication. If you know your work is of high quality, keep sending it out—or at least look for the kind of unexpected opportunity I found. The only sure recipe for failure in writing (besides ignoring craft) is giving up. Success may come your way if you persevere.
–Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He is the author of two novels, End of Summer (WordCrafts Press, 2011) and Unpardonable Sin (WordCrafts Press, 2014). He also authored the award-winning poetry chapbook, From Field to Thicket, and a poetry collection, Hiding from the Reaper and Other Horror Poems (2013). His nonfiction book, Aerobics for the Mind: Practical Exercises in Philosophy that Anybody Can Do was recently published by WordCrafts Press. A native of Smyrna, Tennessee, he lives with his wife, Karen, and their three cats, Frodo, Pippin, and Rosie, in Linden, North Carolina. For more information on Michael, visit his website at: www.michael-potts.com; and his author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/michaelpottsauthor
I am pleased to open up the Stories of Perseverance blog with a posting by Jason S. Ridler, PhD. Jason was a classmate of mine at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005. Our desks were next to each other and he never ceased to amaze me with his wealth of knowledge about the genres of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, the books, the authors. He had so many ideas, and such a great sense of humour. After Odyssey, Jason and a couple of other classmates of ours challenged each other to write a story a week for a month or two. At one point he had 50 stories circulating the slush piles, and he racked up hundreds of rejections that first year.
When I asked Jay to guest blog for me, once again, I was blown away by what he had to say. Jay, you inspire me.
CATASTROPHE AND TRANSFORMATION: ONE WRITER’S VIEW OF SURVIVAL AND SUCCESS
By Jason S. Ridler, PhD.
WARNING: This article will not end with me being rich and famous, having a bestseller or a million-dollar movie deal, or even being able to quit my day job. Nor will it instruct you on how to hit those targets. If those are your goals, please, go elsewhere. It is inspired by the recent works of Rachel Nabors, Carrie Vaughn and Kameron Hurley on work, creativity, and careers.
Summer 2013. My life collapsed. My marriage was ending. I was unemployed. And my mother was diagnosed with and then killed by four different cancers. I had three of the five most stressful psychological crises happening simultaneously. All certainty, stability, and normalcy shattered. Including my ideas about art, writing, and money. I say this because catastrophe, while horrific, can be transformative. It was for me.
Between 2009 and 2013 I struggled with my desire for a writing “career.” After ten years writing short stories, I quested to be a career novelist in the commercial marketplace. I thought I had what it took. My stuff is character driven, full of action and strong dialog, and dark. Much of that ilk was making a mint. Why not me?
But my relentless desire, efforts, and hubris to beat the odds blinded me to this goal’s external hardships (the nature of the marketplace, the Great Recession, etc). Worse, I struggled with accommodating market demands. My novels were afar from what the trade market wanted (novels about wrestling, fat kids, and a thriller with a female lead, which, according to some, might give the dominant male readership syphilis) that they weren’t really accommodations at all. There are other reasons, too. Agent shifts. Bad psychology. Private shit. Bottom line? These works did not sell, let alone generate a career. And it was my fault.
Navigating between what the market wanted and what I was driven to write proved, in hindsight, impossible. I actively despised much of the work I’d read in the genres where I was told I would “best” fit. So I tried to recoup a novel career by publishing my work online during the “Ebook Hysteria” of 2011-2013. Despite polemics about freedom from convention, everyone had a formula or myriad of rules for “success” in this world (series novellas, perpetual content, fantasy and thriller genres, covers with big boobs or chicks holding things, unending PR efforts, publishing everything you ever wrote with shitty covers, writing novels in a week). I tried my best. I wrote five novels in two years. Had covers made. Tried to crank the PR machine. The late Lucius Shepard liked and blurbed one of my novels, which for me was praise from Caesar. But my most common review remains “I never thought I’d like a novel like this one, but I did!” Hardly box-office gold. A few bucks, sure, but I’d made more cash with a pro short story sale. In this world as well, I was financially unsuccessful.
In terms of my career goals, I was fucked.
I’d written eight novels in three-and-half years trying to find the right book, books, or approach for success. I’d also finished 75% of a popular non-fiction book that would have had a real life-saving payday. None of them sold. I was burned out, at the brink, and terrified. I’d failed. Every major effort to make a living as a writer crashed. The amount of self-hate I’d generated was blinding.
Then 2013 happened.
All the writer-career-talk became piss in the wind.
Worrying about how to write a bestseller, or doing a blog tour, or using the advice of every Tom, Dick and Konrath about an ebook revolution. . . all of it is meaningless when you watch a loved one die, end a marriage, give up animals you cared for, or sell what you own to eat. For a blip I hoped publishing might help against the mess I was in. After all, these works were “assets” that I could play. Sadly, hope is desperation in disguise. My agent didn’t save me with a great deal in traditional publishing. My ebooks didn’t save me with those “free” samples generating sales. And no, reading fiction didn’t become a magical land where I could escape. Real life stepped forward, eviscerated me, and there was no magic in the written word. Writing didn’t save me. Family saved me. Friends saved me. And I saved me.
I jumped from grief, to desperation, to survival at mach speed. I juggled the numbing drudgery of finding employment (over seven hundred applications and interviews before one hit), finding a new home (that has no kitchen, but wasn’t decorated with bullet holes), and rebooting my existence in bad economic circumstances. I now viewed all publishing, traditional, indie, and self-publishing, as “The Machine.” The Machine wants what it wants. It’s not malign or benign. It has no personal vendetta. It simply operates under its principles of profit, desire, chance and internal contradictions. If you don’t have what it wants, the way it wants it, when it wants it, it just keeps rolling. In the wake of all these nightmares, I realized I didn’t lose my writing career with The Machine. I never had one to lose.
And I didn’t care. For a year and a half I worked between two and six jobs to regain the essentials of life. I never pined for the days when I had more writing time than most. I didn’t pine for writing at all. If that part of my life had fucked off and died, cool beans. I had to eat. I had to save. I had to keep myself from ending up on the streets or worse.
What little spare time I had went to improv acting, a new vocation. It was a perfect fit. Improv champions failure, working together, and the fun of making a difficult art. There is no Hugo or Nebula or World Fantasy Award for best improviser. And it’s rarely a career. It’s a vocation. All that matters is doing the work. Improv became my “escape” from fifteen-hour days, six days a week, and rekindled a love of art, collegiality, and performance that had suffocated in relentless attempts to become a successful novelist. One of improv’s greatest values is its ethos of “fail.” Failure is terrific. You find new things when you fail because you’re going where you hadn’t gone before. Failure is where things are interesting and unexpected. And failure isn’t done alone, but with a gang of artists that want your failure to be awesome. If you’re not failing, you’re not doing it right. In my old, dead life, failure at writing carried a heavy price and poisonous stigma regarding perceptions of self-worth and investment in the future.
In the wake of 2013, I realized: if I fail at writing, who fucking cared? I had no writing career, no relationship, and The Machine still didn’t know I existed. Being a ghost to that world made me feel like writing again. Back to my punk rock roots. Fuck it. Just do it because you love it, you bastard.
But do what?
There’s an old trick in psychology. If you’ve experienced trauma, do something new that has no relation to the context of said trauma. You generate new memories for your brain to chew on. Improv fit that pistol, and was life-saving. In writing, I abandoned the dead god of novels and moved to comic book scripts. I love comics, but had never attempted them because . . . if you think making money with novels is tough, it’s Shangri La compared to becoming a “professional” comic book writer. But I didn’t care about money, or a career. I had now stabilized my income to a degree where I felt comfortable easing off the gears of work and spending some time writing. I learned comic script format for fun. I found artists to work with, which was fun. And I failed all over the place as I learned the art, the business, and the challenge of working with artists. Some of this sucked bunnies, but I didn’t care. So long as I learned and got better, I enjoyed the challenge.
Soon, I worked with artists I dug. To see my ideas meld with theirs into fully realized comic book pages was like Christmas morning in my brain. We got traction with indie presses. And I learned to write pitches, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved working with editors to refine the ideas of a pitch into something better: the exact opposite of my experience with novels (pitches are hard, but take far less time than finishing a novel. So the investment of blood, sweat and tears are lightyears apart). This was a welcome revelation. Nothing has landed yet (please see the WARNING at the start of this piece). And I really want it to. But not because of a big payday. I just really want to write comics, work with artists and editors, and see what happens next. I also rekindled my interest in short stories, and have begun to create wild things free of any external validation or concern.
Novels faded from interest, with three exceptions. My small reputation as a writer of “wrestling” stories got me an invite to write whatever I wanted for the FIGHT CARD series. The result was RISE OF THE LUCHADOR, and I thoroughly dug it, though I haven’t retired to Monaco just yet. I also wrote a short novel for my newsletter group that explores my love of Saturday morning cartoons. I did it for free. It had only one lodestar: have fun. I also reclaimed interest in my ebooks, and worked hard to get them new covers that I liked. None of them have made a mint. But the result made me happy. It was worth the hours of labor teaching high school History and English, adult writing classes, creating curriculum, grading grad school papers, writing pop history articles, and all the other junk I do to survive. I’m also selling short stories again, but the joy is just letting them roll into the strange creatures they are. Rejections arrive, too, but are also meaningless. Keeping my creative life wide, diverse, and renewed, instead of hyper-focused and commercially driven has yielded far better returns and done my mind far more good than when I wrote in genres I hated for a paydays that never arrived. Life is too short to bleed for the wrong muse.
When my mother was dying, two images hit me. One was from the film A DANGEROUS METHOD, about Carl Jung’s relationship with Sigmund Freud. At the end of the film, Jung sits on a park bench in the throes of mental strain, knowing something awful will happen (the Great War). It is followed by a note that after this anguish, Jung emerged into a period of creative flourish and output that lasted until the end of his life. This image haunted me, and does still, because my mother was a passionate fan of Jung’s work (I was not), and I, too, was enduring compounded trauma. The image of Jung on the bench crashed into another, provided by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in one of her books on grief (I can’t return to those books, so this is from memory). Grief can be transformative. The struggle with trauma produces heroes as well as villains. It is awful, painful, and yet inevitable, so if you have your wits about you, it can be a catalyst for profound transformation. Ross noted that we are inundated with pictures of youth and beauty, even within struggle, but what of the Grand Canyon? Its majesty is the result of titanic forces of strife, wrestled within nature for millennium. Traumas caused it to be transformed, and it has endured. That is what makes it beautiful.
The last time I spoke to my mother, she shared a simple truth which I hold very, very dear. In the end, what makes this world worth anything is love. It is the only value that really matters. You can argue against me all you want. You can footnote your answers, dance around my simple statement with dense rhetoric, and even win. Go ahead. I don’t care. See who comes to your funeral, and, by the way, go fuck yourself. Love is all that truly makes life meaningful.
When 2013 destroyed my life, I made a promise. Whatever happened, I would not let the sheer volume of trauma destroy me. It came close. But I did not reach for the bottle. I did not retreat from the world. I did not hand the reins of my existence to anyone else. I let the awe be transformative. And in my creative life, my lodestar would not be money, not status, not stardom. It would be love, whatever shape or form it should take. Comics? Improv? Short stories? History? Spoken word? One-Man-Shows? Plays? Teaching? Even novels? Sure, so long as the love is true. So if The Machine wants to pay me top dollar, I’ll cash the check. If it ignores me, I’ll be too busy doing my thing to notice. But I will love what I make, generate a lot of it, and grab as many dollar-sacks as possible before I, too, am only a memory. If a “writing career” happens, cool beans. Until then, bills will be paid by other means so that I never write for the wrong reasons again.
Also, are you guys hiring?
Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and historian. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. His popular non-fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dark Scribe, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada.
I have been thinking a lot about what makes it so difficult for us to sit down and write. Why are we so willing to give in to our Inner Saboteur, even when we know that’s what we’re doing?
A lot of times it comes down to the thought “Why bother?”
Let’s face it, being a writer is hard. As soon as you tell family or friends you’re writing, they expect your short story or novel to appear in print within a month because that’s what happens on TV. They also expect you to be the next J.K. Rowling, raking in the billions.
They don’t understand, and they don’t see, the hours spent alone at the computer trying to figure out the perfect wording for the sentence, the hours agonizing over description, or dialogue. They don’t see the years of languishing in the slush pile. They don’t get that it can take years to land an agent, and longer still to get a book contract. They don’t see your $5 – $10,000 advance, 15% of which goes to your agent.
But we, as writers, know what it is to slog through rejection after rejection. We all face the changing publishing industry.
We love to share our ‘terrible rejection’ stories when we’re together. But we rarely celebrate successes. I suspect it is because we hear about someone getting the book contract or story sale and think “why couldn’t it be me?” or we think “Probably happened for them right away. Hack!”
The truth of it is, success comes in different ways for all of us. We all want that Sally Field winning the Oscar moment of “You really like me. You really like me!” We should be celebrating each other’s successes, and think “It can happen to me too.”
I have asked a number of authors who have experienced their own success, to tell their stories of perseverance, what they went through to get to that success. This doesn’t necessarily mean their stories end there. Some will go on to bigger and better things, others will not.
And that’s OK.
What is important is that they believed in themselves and their writing enough to push through the tough times, the slush, the wondering “Why Bother?”
Let their stories inspire you to do the same!
Happy New Year!
2014 was an exciting year for me as a coach. I started my business and I received my certification from the International Coach Federation. I also published my first novel, “Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf“!
I want to thank you all for being with me through this first year.
2015 is going to be a busy and exciting year. I’m working on restructuring the format of my popular “Silencing Your Inner Saboteur” workshop, and creating another workshop that is a greater in-depth look at the specific fears that are holding us writers back. I’ll be looking for your feedback soon on these workshops. And with your help, they will be better than ever! And your assistance will be rewarded!
As you can see, I have an exciting year ahead and coaching is very much a part of it as I continue to grow my business. If you, or anyone you know, might be interested in exploring a coaching relationship, remember I offer a complimentary coaching session to discover each other, the coaching relationship, and if coaching is the right path to take. Don’t hesitate to refer friends!
All they have to do is send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with a date and time that suits them best for me to contact them, and if they’d like to connect by phone, Skype, or google+. Or, they can fill out the contact form on this page.
Here’s to a great new year!
The instantaneous consumerism of the internet is overloading authors with pressure to be more and more prolific. It is no longer considered prolific to be publishing a book a year.
The rapidly changing publishing industry is creating havoc. Traditionally published authors aren’t certain they’ll have a future in it, and indie authors are scrambling to produce enough to find and sustain an audience. One of the buzzwords that authors talk about is “diversification.” This means not only writing novels and short stories, but writing for video games, other new media projects, television, movies, the stage, finding speaking engagements, and writing news articles.
I think diversification is great, if you can do it. But what happens if you try to do it all? I’m reminded of a saying, that someone trying to do it all is a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” My interpretation of that saying is that in trying to do it all, you are spreading yourself too thin, and not mastering the one or two areas where you can truly polish your skills and excel at it.
Become a master.
- Think about what kind of writing career you truly want. Do you want a long-lasting career? Or do you want to make a bucket-load of money right now? Where do you want to be in 20 years from now?
- What is the fundamental value behind that career choice? Is it pride in self and your work? Is it acceptance? Is it leaving a financial legacy for your family?
- Look at all the potential projects on your desk that you think you need to do to diversify and make some money. Which of those projects speak to what you value about your writing career? Which ones show off your greatest skills and talent as a writer?
- Pick the one or two other projects that will advance your career and your legacy.
Once you set these projects as your writing priorities, you will have more energy, motivation, and focus on what you need to do. And when you have that energy and focus, you will become a master of your writing career.
What do you want your writing career to be? What projects are getting in the way?