Wednesday, October 12, 2016

So you want to be a writer huh? Good luck with that!

"Rarely do you tell the would-be wordsmith: This is a hard road you are taking. Are you sure it is the the one for you? Is there anything else, anything at all, you'd also enjoy doing?
                  If so, go and do it.   Spare yourself the agony."      - Nicki Porter         

The average acceptance rate for a writer trying to publish is 5.087%*.  That means on average, for every 100 stories, poems and manuscripts I send to agents and/or publishers, I will get a hard "No" on 95 of them.  And that is the average rate for those that are firmly in the industry, those that do this for a living. So, I think it is safe to assume that for a writer that has not yet gotten that elusive "yes" the actual rate is far lower.

I've been getting a lot of questions lately, asking why I am not writing on this blog much anymore. First, it means so much to me that you all notice and miss it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. The answer is: I have not had time for writing, because I am writing too much. Not writing here is a good thing, it means I am writing more for real. But, because I value you very highly my beloved reader, I decided to take a small break from writing, so I could write just a bit...about writing. Perhaps not what most of you had in mind, but it's what is on my mind lately.

Warning: This post is a bit sarcastic and dry at times. If that bothers you, don't read it. I mean no disrespect. PLEASE know that I am not writing about anyone in particular. No one I know and love that is, all "you"s are general. I often use sarcasm as a coping mechanism to cover up my deep-seated insecurities. Don't take that away from me!

I first decided that 'when I grow up, I want to be a writer' about 4 years ago when I still had very small children at home. As an escape, once a week after dinner I would go and read in a coffee shop for a few hours alone. It gave me some time to remember who I was, and let my family do without me for an evening. Good for all of our sanity...or the very thing we needed to tip us over the edge? I'm never really completely sure about that one.  Anyhow - one night, instead of bringing a book to read, I brought with me a few hastily scrawled-on pages and a laptop.  I'd had verses of a poem scattering about in my brain, and I wanted to write them down where they would not be lost.  

I sat and wrote for 3 hours. 

What resulted, was a poem titled "I think my mom's a pirate." It was (is, it still exists. I could never destroy my first born) way too long, it had no direction or story-line and some of the rhymes were pushing the laws of meter and rhythm.  But oh I was proud of it! 

While writing, the stresses of my world had not mattered anymore.  I felt an inner joy that I didn't even know existed, a tightness in my chest had released. It was as if I had forgotten to breath for years; writing made me remember, and it was life-giving.  The more I poured myself into the writing, the more I felt was being poured back into me. This, THIS was what I wanted to do. I was giddy when I finished that poem. The world felt like a wonderful place, full of colors I had never seen before.  I'm not exaggerating, I may even be down-playing. It was like a drug, the high was intoxicating.

And so began my insanity. 

Because, really - you have to be insane to do this job.

When my youngest turned 2, I enrolled her in a preschool program that occupied her for 3 hours, twice a week. During that time, I would pack up my laptop and take it to a local coffee and pastry shop. There I started to learn just how this whole "writer" thing works. I would spend some time researching, learning the trade.  And the rest of my time would be spent writing new stories, poems and lists of ideas. I loved it.  The first time I submitted a story to an agent I was physically shaking as I sent off the email.  The rejection form-letter that followed several months later felt like a milestone.
I was doing this for real!

I took a year off when my family moved 200 miles to a new city.  By this time I had about 3 stories completed and several more partials, plus a dozen or so poems of varying lengths. When my littlest went back to preschool in 2015, I was very eager to get back to work. I rejoined SCBWI (The Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators),  I attended several writers conferences, bought books, read magazines, blogs, really anything I could to learn how to be better, how to make the system work for me. I squeezed every bit of "work" I could into those measly hours.  I had to take a break over summer again, I simply cannot write when kids are around. I am a terrible mother and not a great writer when I try, my kids (and I) deserve better than I simply stop when they are home.  It is better for all of us. 

Six weeks ago my youngest child started Kindergarten.  I now have five mornings a week to do this writing thing. I love it more than I can put into words (and that means something!) I now have six completed stories, and a solid handful of poems and partially finished manuscripts.  I started my first novel and I have about nine rejections under my belt, a solid start to my anticipated 95. 

I don't have any "yes" responses yet - though one children's magazine has had one of my better poems set at "in-progress" in their system for over a year now.  That has got to mean something right? At least they didn't mark it "declined" right away like they have for several of my other poems/stories.  So I am hopeful.  Someday I will make money at this, I am just that stubborn!  And according to my research, stubbornness is almost just as important as a talent for writing...almost.

In the past couple of years, I have learned a tremendous amount...and yet I still feel very much like a beginner, perhaps that never really goes away. I think I have learned enough to call myself a writer (a writer that knows how lucky she is to have helpful editors to fix all my grammar faux pas) though I am not yet to the point where I can say I am an "author." I still get a thrill when I imagine the day that will be true.

I have learned enough now, that I feel I am at least semi-qualified to offer words of wisdom to those that think they might want to be a writer someday. Ready?

There are "writers" EVERYWHERE.  It's true. It's an epidemic, perhaps rivaled only by (but in the same stream as) "there are photographers everywhere."  You know the ones, they get an SLR camera for Christmas and take a few "artsy" shots, get some well meant, genuine compliments on their photo's (usually from extended family) and immediately make themselves a watermark, create a facebook page and start advertising themselves as a "Photographer."

You know what I'm talking about.

And honestly, it's great. I am never one to criticize when someone has a passion. But you see, I really am trying to do this for a living. That is my end-goal. that is what I am working towards. Writing for me is not a hobby, this is my chosen career. So, while I may understand on an intellectual level that comments made on, or about my chosen career are not said with malice,  I have had to become very good at smiling and nodding.

Because people are...people.

So! In the spirit of all of us learning, I have compiled a list.  '5 things never to say to the want-to-be author in your life.' Or, alternate title: '5 things you will hear constantly, if you ever decide you want to be a writer.' Or, third alternate title: "So you want to be a writer huh?  Good luck with that!"

5. "You are a writer? That's great! My cousin's, nephew's, neighbor is a writer!  He self-published a book like...5 years ago? I'm sure he would love to help you if you want any advice.  Do you want me to give you his information?"

No. I...I really don't.  It is not that I'm not happy for your cousin's, nephew's, neighbor...really.  But self publishing and standard publishing are very different, especially in the picture book world.  I know how to self-publish, it is really REALLY easy.  And because it is so very easy, it is not especially respected in the big world of author-dom. Sure, there are stories about people that made it big going that route, but there are also stories of street performers being signed to a record label just because an agent happened to be walking by and loved what they heard. It's basically the same thing. I may try self-publishing sometimes, just for the experience and to test out an audience (just as a wanna-be performer might spend his Saturday playing in a park...just to see if anyone will stop and listen).  But ultimately, self-publishing is not my goal. I would consider it a resource at best.

4. "You write picture books? That is great! My niece really loves drawing, want me to see if she would be up for doing the illustrations for your book? She wants to be an artist someday, and since she is in high school, she would probably be really cheap.  You guys could be a team!"

Have you seen the "How I Met Your Mother" episode where there is that one girl they call "Honey" because everything she says is just a little bit...clueless, and it makes you want to response with "Awww, honey!"  People can really be so...helpful?  They have such good intentions, they get so excited, they have such grand plans.  And all I can do is let them finish their fantastical story, smile and say "Awww, really doesn't work like that!"  Even authors that are also illustrators don't usually get to pick who does the pictures for their manuscript, not until they have established themselves fully within their trade. However, my sisters are both artists, so that makes me a bit of an expert on critiquing art...right?  So you can tell your niece that I would be happy to review her portfolio and give some helpful feedback, for cheap! Oh say that having artists in the family doesn't make me an expert? Oh, your niece doesn't have a portfolio yet? Yeah, she should probably get right on that if she wants to be an artist someday...just my "expert" opinion.

Can you tell I get this one a lot?

3.  "You're a writer? That's great!  How many books have you published? Would I recognize any of your books? Do they have them at Barnes and Noble?"

Ummm....thanks for the vote of confidence. Really! It means a lot, it really does.  But won't recognize any of my books because...well, no one but me, my critique group, and a handful of grumpy agents have read them. I love that you assume I have been successful, but it is kinda a rough answer to back into. I get that this is my thing, and I have to learn to deal with it - and it has nothing to do with the person asking the question. But it is still a hard one to hear!

2. "Oh, you write books? That's great! I have thought about writing a book, I'll probably do it someday, you know...when I'm old and I have nothing else to do."

Ok, I may be paraphrasing that last part a bit, but it's what I hear.  And please don't get me wrong, I LOVE to learn that people have a passion for writing. The thing that makes me want to shake my head and groan, is when people talk about it entirely without passion.  As if writing a book is something that wrinkled crones take up as a hobby when there is nothing else interesting in the world to do. Not only that, but it is implied that as soon as they are properly decrepit, their book will immediately be discovered and published.  After all, that is how this all works...right?

1. And perhaps the worst of all: "You write kids books? That's great!  I am writing/wrote a kids book!  I've been thinking of getting it published, just haven't gotten around to it yet." too.  Just haven't gotten around to it yet....  (I feel like I should have a sad emoji face here. You know, to illustrate the whole curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry thing that I secretly want to do every time I get another rejection.)

Because you know, just "getting around to it" is all it takes to get published. That's what I've been missing all this time, no wonder no one has published my books yet! Silly me forgot the most important step! Ok, ok, I'll try to cool it on the sarcasm.

Honestly though, I do think it is great that you have written/are writing a kids book. Truly. If I am being honest, I think at the root of it all my biggest fear is that it really will be that easy for you. I am terrified that you will write a book and then you will just happen to have the right conversation, with the right person, in the right coffee shop...and BAM! You will get your book published.  And I...who have spent years researching, reading, highlighting agent's information in books, going to conferences, writing, sending out manuscripts, writing, getting rejected and writing some more will be the one that has to get 100 no's before I see that first yes.

But really - I do understand that 99% of the time, these questions are well-intentioned.  And every time I hear them (which is several times a week) I get to imagine the day when I can answer confidently, as an author and not a wanna-be-writer.

To tip the scale, just a little, I will tell you one of my favorite things to hear when I talk to someone new about writing, being published and what it all boils down to - my hopes and dreams.

"So, are you going to put me in your book?"

The answer is: Oh, probably!  I love learning about people.  I love hearing stories, adventures, watching personalities interact. I love watching body language, how it coincides with what people are feeling, saying, projecting. I love knowing histories, hearing about how people have walked through hard times, easy times, what sustained them and why.  I crave stories, in all shapes and forms. And I think every single person with which I have ever interacted, is knitted together to form every single character I have ever created.

I picture it like a giant spider web, glistening with dew.

Every thread is someone I have met, known, cared about, watched, lived, read, seen, hated, fought and loved. And always, more glistening strands are being imagined. They make up all of my characters; old, new, never forgotten. They are all woven together to create something breathtakingly beautiful, and just a little bit terrifying.

That is why I do this.  Because after all, at the root of everything...

*Keysha Whitaker. The Science of Submission: The Writer.