Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Wanna Be A (Published) Writer

The infinite monkey theorem postulates that if you had a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random an infinite number of times will eventually produce all of Shakespeare’s works.

That’s pretty much how writing works. Given enough time, perseverance and temperament, a writer will eventually craft a work of subtle, tear-shedding brilliance.

That hasn’t happened to me yet.

I’m still banging on keys, hoping to strike it lucky, praying for literary gold.

All I ever seem to get is something passable, maybe mildly entertaining.

I don’t want that for an epitaph.

“Well, his writing was mildly entertaining…”

Self-doubt is poison to a writer. It clouds the mind, dulls the senses and makes one wish never to pound on keyboards anymore. Writing is the act of revealing a hidden portion of oneself, of parting the curtain and sharing experiences, fears and dreams.

Or it could be about atomic gorillas typing for all eternity and coming up with Hamlet.

For 2013, I’m making the daft attempt at writing fiction. I’ve read so many warnings against self-publishing: People who self-publish are dreary hacks and untalented dolts who couldn’t get published the traditional way. Self-publishing means lesser quality, slipshod editing and poor distribution. Self-published authors only sell 10 copies at the county fair and won’t receive the exposure they crave.

While it’s true self-publishing has its downsides and limitations, I’ve heard reasons for it. The advice I received was to try to get your work published the traditional way, and then shift to self-publishing if you feel you’d benefit from it.

From what I’ve seen and heard at writer's conferences (and if there’s one near you, do go) is self-publishing is the Poverty Row of the publishing world. It’s where clueless writers who want the world to read their autobiographies or treatises on Latvian poetry end up, and face crushing disappointment.

Established writers look down on self-published authors much the same as physicians look down on chiropractors. The smug disdain for self-publishing is diminishing, as more established authors are taking the e-publishing route. Writers are finding electronic distribution to be easier than traditional publishing.

I’m no stranger to the slush pile. That’s where most of my work ends up these days. I have a lovely collection of rejection letters from a variety of publishers. The main thread running through these rejections is, “While the story is well-written, we just don’t have a market for it at this time.”

Call me Captain Unmarketable, caped crusader with no commercial potential.

Here’s the thing: Should I write what’s in my heart, craft the stories I want, or should I bow to genre?

I’ve been told in writer's conferences (and really, if you’re not doing anything, do pop by and try to attend one. They’re really marvelous!) genre fiction sells better than plain, vanilla literary fiction. There’s truth to that, but I’ve seen a mashing of genres in fiction having stellar success. “Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” combines vampires and history, “Twilight” combines vampires and teen romance, “Fifty Shades of Gray” combines erotic fiction with a desire to throttle the author senseless.

Just bending to commercial pressure and writing something marketable is misguided, I think. Writing just to get published shouldn’t be the only goal, but abandoning the quest for getting published is worse.

It all comes down to fundamentals. That should be the foundation of writing. Can the writer tell a good story? Are readers engaged enough to continue reading the rest? From the first few sentences, you can tell if a story is going to entrap you and pique your interest. You’ll never be published if you write only to get published. Craft a seamless, well-written story and maybe a publisher won’t chuck it in the bin. 

I’ve also been told at writer's conferences (they’re super nice and will impart so much uplifting and positive information for fledgling authors, so why not attend one and see?) to act professionally, because the publishing community is so intimate and editors from different publishing houses communicate with each other. Act like an unprofessional jackass, and they’ll take notice. Threaten or cajole an editor, and you’ll be blacklisted.

Also, from what I’ve heard from established authors, it’s much easier for writers to get their books published if they have short stories published. I tried (unsuccessfully) to climb that ladder, but was beaten down, rung by rung. I submitted several short stories, which received the standard, “The story’s well-written, but we can’t use it at this time. Ever consider a career in retail sales? I hear The Gap is hiring.”

 Have I mentioned my stack of rejection letters is thicker than a Shanghai phonebook?

The problem for me is, those early stories were written hastily and catered to specific periodicals.

This science fiction publisher is looking for submissions for an anthology on robotic cross-dressing werewolves! Better crank something out fitting those exact parameters!

Sweet Jesus eating tofu! This publisher is looking for short stories on extraterrestrial lesbian Regency Romance! Time to get cracking on another 5,000-word opus!

By the way, extraterrestrial lesbian Regency Romance is a cool name for an alternative band, so feel free to steal it. Rock on!

Instead of writing what the market demands just to fit it into a particular (and peculiar) anthology, I’m concentrating on producing well-written stories. I’ve improved on the pacing, the characterization and the style.

I’d like 2013 to be the year my writing blossoms and changes, the year I become wholly readable.

So far, I’ve written one short story, with a goal of completing a short story a month.

We’ll see how it goes. Within six months, I’ll have a body of work to choose from and send out.

I just have to keep plugging away.

My monkey has a date with the keyboard… 

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