Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2014

The Apprenticeship

Becoming a writer is an apprenticeship. It's important to realize this when you are submitting manuscripts early on and it seems like you are getting nowhere and all you get is form rejections that make you wonder if anyone has even read your work. It's not that you have no talent. It's not that you're never going to get there. It's just that you have to pay your dues. You have to learn certain skills before anyone will take you seriously as a writer. You have to learn what has already been done and isn't interesting anymore. You get to know a few people who will vouch for you. You join various guilds like SCBWI or SFWA. If it takes five years or ten years, that's pretty normal. And that's from when you're serious about it, not when you're playing around. From when you start querying to when you get published, plan on it taking a good long while. And please don't be in a hurry about it. It will only make things worse.

Most writers spend time in school being praised for their writing skills. I know I was. I could write an essay like nobody's business. And I could do it faster than anyone else. I typed fast (100 words per minute), but I could write fast long-hand, too. I could write a book report that would make my teachers cry in high school. I wrote stories that won the PTA "Reflections" awards and other various school contests. My essays were published in the school newspaper. And the same thing happened in college. If a large part of a class's grade was based on essay-writing, I was likely to get something above a B just for writing a paper. I'm not saying I didn't work hard. I did. I was a good little student, following rules. But mostly, I wrote well because I liked writing and did it a lot and maybe because I had some natural aptitude for it.

So when I started submitting manuscripts in the real world of publishing, I admit, I expected a bit more praise than I got. Which is to say, I expected to be published pretty much immediately. Yeah, I had that dream of getting the phone call every time I sent something out that first year. I figured they were all just waiting for the chance to get their hands on my manuscripts and they would all be published practically as I had written them in a first draft. Oh, there would be some copyediting. But not much else because I was a good writer. And that was what I figured you needed to be published.

I wrote these deep short stories that had "themes," unlike a bunch of the stories I was reading, which were all plot. I had characters! The kind that you'd study in a literature class because they were so ordinary and their lives were so depressing. I wrote with three-dollar words. I used empty lines to mean something important. You could find meaning between the words in my stories. And I was breaking rules right and left. I was creating a new literary history all on my own. No one had done what I had done before. I was experimenting. I was a "genius."

Yeah. I was too big for my britches. I hadn't paid my dues. I had spent a lot of time studying how to analyze literature in a way that might have gotten me published in a literary magazine. I was writing query letters that were three and four pages long so that I could prove how well I understood the genre and how I knew that I was breaking rules, but I was doing it on purpose. I was smart and I wanted to prove it to every lucky person who got one of my perfect manuscripts.

Needless to say, I spent the next couple of years collecting a whole bunch of rejections. I spent a lot of money on paper, sending out my manuscripts again and again to every name I could find in the reference books I had access to in my library. I figured I was just waiting for the right person who could see my brilliance. But the more rejections I got, not rejections with notes attached, not rejections that encouraged me to send it to this other person at this address with a recommendation from the attached, the more I realized that something was wrong. It took me a while to figure out what it was.

I wasn't good enough.

I am sure you are laughing over this, but it wasn't funny to me at the time. I thought that once I started actually writing stories, it would be a snap to find people who wanted to publish them. I thought that I was just that much smarter and more talented than everyone on the planet. Or maybe I was just so young and naïve that I had no idea how many people in America think they have at least one novel in them. Ever been to a dinner party and counted how many people said they wanted to write a novel someday, when they had time, when they retired, when their kids were grown up? Ever asked for a show of hands in a classroom of English majors how many people have a few lines of their novel written?

Here are a couple of truths that I took a long time to learn:

1. Being smart in college doesn't get you very far in real life. It's not just true in the writing and publishing world. It's true in math, science, business, law school, and in medicine. Yes, you need to be smart to be a good doctor and you need to be smart to get good grades in med school. It's just not the same kind of smart. You might be lucky enough to have both naturally, but it's unlikely.

2. Brilliant is a dime a dozen. I got a perfect score on the verbal portion of the GRE when I applied to graduate school. That means I was in the top .1 % of people in the country supposedly. But that leaves a lot of people with that score, because we're not counting just one year. When you count all of the people with that score who are still alive, it's a lot of people. And it's ultimately kind of a big yawn.

3. The people who succeed the most are the people with the greatest capacity for rejection. I had no idea how much rejection I was going to get in my history as a writer. I really thought that it was just going to be the first few years until I got my first book accepted. I believed (despite several people who told me the contrary) that I was going to be so good that once they figured out what I could do, publishers would just keep asking for more. Well, I've been rejected a lot more since I got my first book published than I did before I got that book published. My agent has rejected. My editor has rejected. My publisher has rejected me. Readers have rejected me. Reviewers have rejected me. My own family members have rejected me. And guess what? It's good for me. Ultimately, I have learned every time how to be a better writer.

4. No one is an exception. I'm sure you're thinking about the stories about Stephenie Meyer or about another author like Diana Gabaldon who supposedly sold the first novel they ever wrote. It's a lie. It's a story that has been created as painstakingly as the story between the pages of the book you bought. Because no one wants to buy a book from someone who has been working for twenty years on the same novel. That doesn't make good copy. You want to buy a book from the exception, from the person who broke all the rules and who was so brilliant, she wrote a book based on a dream and it just sold to the first person she sent it to. Yeah, no.

5. The journey really is the best part. You think that getting published is what will validate you, but it doesn't. Not really. What validates you is learning important things, growing as a writer and being able to tell stories you never dreamed you would be able to tell. And there's no way to rush that. There's no "prodigy" badge that is going to help you in any way. Being younger than everyone else isn't a good thing in the writing world, even if you're writing YA. Being good is what makes you good, nothing else. And there's no fast track to getting there. So enjoy the journey because how you get to publication is going to make a real difference in how long you stay there. The tougher you are, the longer you'll last. I don't envy people who publish their first novels. I suspect they end up giving up because they don't realize how much rejection is perfectly normal.

In another time and in another world, a craft like storytelling had a more formal apprenticeship. You would follow around a professional and do grunt work. You would practice your perfect handwriting and get cramps recopying the perfect retelling of this story or that one. You might spend your valuable time bringing a pillow or a refreshing mug of ale to the true genius. And you might wonder why you were doing any of it, since it wasn't teaching you squat about storytelling.

Ah, but it is. Mr. Miyagi is teaching you something, even if it's only how to be tougher and how to learn some humility about yourself and your aspirations.

There are a lot of things you need to learn, and they're not just about how to use grammar properly. Just because you sailed through your college English class and even taught freshman how to write beginning level essays, technical writing, or grammar, that doesn't mean you are now an expert. It doesn't really even make you a journeyman. It makes you competent at one thing. One.

You've got a lot of other things to learn. You need to spend several years reading what is being currently published. It will be useful if you are following some people in the business on social media. And you are on social media yourself and have interesting things to say. It's useful if you've got connections to other writers who might blurb you or just talk about your book when it comes out. It doesn't hurt, either, if you've got a couple of other books or ideas that you are ready or nearly ready to sell.

Imagine you're an apprentice to DaVinci and he makes you take notes about his random thoughts. You're writing down stuff about airplanes, which is basically insane, as well as pigment for paints, urine drying leather, and human anatomy. It makes no sense to you and you feel like you're time is being wasted. But if so, you're the one who's not making the most of your apprenticeship, not DaVinci.

Learn from every conversation that you ever hear. Take notes on how people walk, talk, interact with the world. When you're watching TV or movies, watch attentively. Write a review for every bite of food you take. If you have a car accident, think about how the experience changed you, how time passed at the moment, how the pain blossomed gradually. Nothing is wasted if you are a good apprentice. Write bits and pieces. Write novels. Write series of novels. Write your one million words. And then write another million words, if you have to.

And send things out. Be brave. Seek out chances for rejection, because those are also the only chances for acceptance. You can't get what you want unless you are also willing to take a chance in not getting what you want and in feeling truly hurt. That whole thing about aiming for the stars and landing on the roof is crap. Aim for the stars because you want the stars. Don't ever be satisfied with the roof.

Some of the lessons that helped me move past my apprenticeship and into what I consider a journeyman phase:

1. Be humble. I don't mean this just advice for how to get along with other people in the world. I think it makes you a better writer. It allows you to take things in, to truly experience the world, to see other people in a haze of wonder that will come through in your work.

2. Acknowledge other people who have helped you. You don't have to do this in print on your book, though that's not a bad place for it. But remember your editor, agent, copyeditor, publicist, your writing friends, your family.

3. Don't take it personally. Of course you will be hurt by a nasty review. Don't respond to it. Get on with your work. Someone who doesn't like what you've written is simply not the audience for your work. It means nothing more than that.

4. By the same token, don't go around making declarations about how other writers are "ruining literature." I say this as someone who spent far too long thinking that I knew what good writing was and being unable to make friends with those who couldn't write what I loved. It's not about them. It's about me/you.

5. Look to the future, not to the past. This applies not only to your writing, but to your life. Spending less time trying to rework a piece you originally conceived as a kid might not be as useful as thinking up something new. By the same token, you may need to let your relationship work from now on, rather than holding people hostage by their previous acts.

6. Do your work. No one is going to discover you. No one is going to pull that perfect novel out of your head. You have to do it yourself. Yes, it's hard. Apprenticing is hard. Your fingers may get burned from all the heat splashing you. It's the way it gets done.

7. Take care of yourself. Be physically active. Eat healthy food. But also take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually. Find out what makes you happy and do that a lot.

8. Don't feed the trolls. Just don't engage people who are there purely to be negative. Try to figure out as quickly in an interaction as you can if someone is capable of hearing you and changing. If not, stop talking.

9. Keep your passion. If you aren't passionate about what you're working on, work on something else if at all possible. Or try to inject something you're passionate about into what you have to work on, though that's definitely a second choice. Everyone can tell if you're not having fun, if you're work isn't joyous.

10. Break the rules. Yes, I get to break rules. But only because I figured out what they are and what they were there for. Yeah, it sounds arrogant, but it's true. People who know the rules are usually smart enough they can work ways around them.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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