Dear Captain of the Awkward Army,
I have recently decided to do something about my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. I still have a non-creative-writing job that makes money (well, a paying internship, but close enough), but I am trying to spend more and more of my free time writing fiction, editing, and submitting stuff. I haven’t finished the book I started last year yet, but I’m probably 60% done, and in the last four months or so I’ve written six short stories, all of which I have submitted to at least one magazine.
Here is my problem: I’ve gotten ten rejections so far and no acceptances. I get that this is totally normal and most writers and creative people weather a nightmarish storm of “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now” for weeks or months or years before the “We would like to pay you to do this thing you like” Magical Skippy Unicorn shows up, but the fact is: I get a little more depressed and lose a little more confidence in my abilities with every form letter I receive.
Do you have any other advice besides “just keep writing”? That’s not really the problem for me; I write almost compulsively and really enjoy making up stories. The problem is finding the energy to keep trying to improve my work (through rigorous editing, seeking feedback, reading books about the craft of writing and so on) and keep submitting when it feels so pointless—I’m probably going to get rejected anyway, so why do the hard bits that I don’t like? I’ve been trying to get critique to figure out where I’m going wrong, but the online forums I have tried are really frustrating, I think my friends are pretty sick of reading things I wrote, and I’m currently working in a country where the main language is not English, so I’m not sure how successful I’m going to be in finding an English-speaking writers’ group.
Not starving, and apparently not an artist either
Dear Not Starving:
Sorry to disappoint you. You can:
1) Keep writing and sending out your work.
2) Give up and do something else.
“ I get that this is totally normal and most writers and creative people weather a nightmarish storm of “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now” for weeks or months or years before the “We would like to pay you to do this thing you like” Magical Skippy Unicorn shows up, but the fact is: I get a little more depressed and lose a little more confidence in my abilities with every form letter I receive.”
What I read is: “I get that this is totally normal for other people, but I was really hoping that it would be different for me, especially since I’m usually pretty successful at things that I do.“
10 rejections is NOTHING. I know it feels upsetting – and as a filmmaker, I’m usually paying $20-$50 in Festival submission fees in return for my stupid form letter, and I feel it personally every single expensive time – but if you’re applying to the People Who Officially Curate And Publish Things they have many, many, many, many submissions to wade through and they can’t always fall in love with your stuff. It has to be good enough, it has to fill a niche or a need they have, they have to have a spot for it, it has to fit in somehow with total package of things they have planned for this issue or festival program but be different enough to stand out, they have to like it enough to want to put their own time into it, they have to see a market for it. It’s subjective and not fair.
In many ways it’s just like dating. Rejection hurts. It sucks. But because it’s so based on other people’s subjective opinions and decision-making, the only things you can really control are a) improving the product (polishing the draft of a short story, getting a flattering haircut and taking a better dating profile photo) and b) contacting more people in the hopes that one of them will like what you have going on. Which perversely sets you up for even more rejection. But if you look at it as “Other people made their own subjective decision that I can’t control, guess I’d better make more stuff/try again until I find the people who really get and appreciate me” it’s a much more manageable and less depressing outlook than “WHAT’S WRONG WITH MEEEEEEEEE?”
It’s not comforting, but it’s a line that every single person who makes stuff must walk at some point or another. And it doesn’t really go away once you do have some success, because then you have the pressure of maintaining it with each new project, so whatever you think life will be like when you get to be a “professional writer” the reality will probably be very different and you’ll need a love of the work itself and to have created a good life – friendships, other interests – to sustain you. When someone gets published and critically acclaimed it may look like overnight success. That success is bought with years of rejections and tiny small victories and baby steps. You have to really celebrate every victory and give yourself credit for those, and let the rejections fall into the pool of “Who knows what people will like? This is what I do, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
Maybe look around for that English-speaking writer’s group. You never know. If one doesn’t exist, start one. Or look for an online version. The internet is full of people who love using words and reading words!
Maybe say “fuck improving the craft” for a while and write things purely for fun and for the joy of it for a while. Tell good stories. Take more risks.
Maybe do some blogging or creative transmedia stuff to build an audience for your work and get some of the good feelings that come from having people read and respond to your writing. Find someone to collaborate with where you each take turns writing a story Exquisite Corpse-style. Find a graphic artist to turn one of your stories into an animated graphic novel or an interactive app. Take a story or idea you love and find a different medium to tell it. Write stuff that you want to read. Write stuff that’s missing from the world. Find a few people who like what you do, and decide that they are your audience.
If rejection is killing you, eff the gatekeepers and look into self-publishing your work. My friend Phil did just that, check it out. Chuck Wendig is another person who is creating his own writing career and connecting directly with audiences to sell his work. Catherynne M. Valente wrote short stories in the form of letters to her audience for years. Filmmakers, check out the work of King Is A Fink and Awkward Black Girl. The gatekeepers will take notice of them and come to them eventually with money and contracts and offers of a mainstream audience, but they aren’t waiting for that to do what they want to do. And when the big time comes, they’ll be ready because they’ve already been doing it. Think of what it would mean to a publisher or an agent to take you on as an author with a built-in following who is great at self-promotion and attracting fans? Lots of people can write well. Not everyone can have the hustle to make their work stand out in today’s crowded marketplace.
Don’t stop pursuing traditional publishing channels. Look at what successful authors who write in the same genres you work in are doing. What are their websites like? How do they interact with fans? What kind of magazines & journals did they get their early work published in? Who are the agents that represent them? Keep sending out the short stories. As in filmmaking, it’s easier to get people to watch & respond to short work than it is to get them to commit to reading or watching a feature film.
Maybe devote 2 hours/week to marketing your work – crafting query letters, looking for places to submit – and then give yourself permission to not worry about it at all the rest of the time. Make it your goal to get 1000 rejections by the end of the year!
Maybe take some time off and devote that time to reading for pleasure. (Keep sending your stories out during that time).
Finish that novel! And then celebrate because you finished a novel!
The best “other” advice I have for you, if you really want this, is to make your life something that will support your work and help you get through the low times. If you’re falling into depression, treat that depression. Take really good care of yourself. Get sleep, get exercise, eat good food, enjoy this internship that you have and get the most you can out of it, write both for money and for pleasure, try out other jobs that might interest you, make great friends, have a string of interesting romances, see as much as you can of the country that you’re working in. You don’t have to be tortured to be an artist.
Finally, I’m linking this great commencement address by Neil Gaiman, who answers this question really fully and beautifully (and with the benefit of being a published, established, beloved author rather than someone like you who is working her way up into that job called “professional writer” the best way she can). He deals directly with “…the problems of failure, the problems of hopelessness, of discouragement, of hunger. You want everything happen and you want it to happen right now…and things go wrong!“
I especially love this:
“The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I have never regretted the time I have spent on any of them.” -Neil Gaiman