Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writer Types

We're all taught at a young age that stereotypes are bad, bad things, but as we get older, we realize that stereotypes often begin with a grain of truth.  I know, rationally, that not all shade-loving, three-lobed plants will give me a horrible rash, but I sometimes have trouble recognizing the one that will, so it's easier to just avoid all of them.

So, let's say you want to avoid contact with writers. How do you spot one? Ask people to describe the average "creative writer," and you'll likely hear some description of a melancholy dreamer dressed in a black turtleneck who absentmindedly wanders into the street because his nose is buried in Proust. I know people like this. When I quit my 9 to 5 to enroll in graduate school, I met a lot of people like this. I worried that I could never "make it" as a writer because this is not my personality AT ALL. I don't even have a black turtleneck.

I envied the dreamers' lack of inner censor. These were people who scribbled away constantly, who churned out lots of great ideas. The problem was that many of these ideas never went anywhere. Or, if they did finish a piece, they didn't have the patience to revise it, or to send it out to the 20 or more journals it might take to find a home for it. Don't get me wrong. We need people like this in the arts. We need people to sit up into the wee hours of the morning envisioning the next best online magazine. But, then we need people to raise money to create that magazine, to do the tedious work of soliciting contributors, making production schedules, promoting and publishing.

Yes, the writing world needs Type A personalities, and is, in fact, full of them. While my own Type A personality sometimes makes it difficult for me to start projects, it works to my advantage from then on. With my first novel, I had a weekly scheduling meeting with my hubby to plan my writing hours for the week, times when he or a babysitter would care for our two young children. During those hours, I meticulously put 1,000 words on the page. I had to wrestle with my perfectionist demons here. I had to accept that these 1,000 words were not going to be great, that they might not even be in the right order, but that they would get me to a first draft, at which point I could dive into revision, something a perfectionist truly adores.

Type A's are not so good at waiting, and waiting, I've learned, is a big part of the publishing industry. I've waited years to get form rejection letters from journals on my short stories, years to see some in print once they were accepted.  With my book, I waited to hear from agents during the query process and am now waiting to get edits from one agent. In each case, I've gotten a little closer to my goal of seeing the book in print. This is persistence. This is what it looks like to have a goal and to work every day (or every other, at least!) toward that goal.

I cannot tell you how many times, when telling someone what I do, I get this response, "Oh, I'd like to write a novel, too. I just don't have the time."  You know what? Neither do I. Yet, here it is. Three hundred pages of something that looks like a novel to me, that's been drafted, revised, five times, and sent into the world awaiting even more polishing. And there's another one in the works. I do not have time to dream about writing. I do it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Apprentice: Where's a Writer Supposed to Get a Start Anyway?

I took a traditional route to writing.  I got a graduate degree and wrote a collection of short stories as my thesis.  I then set about trying to publish some of those short stories while writing more of them and working a job that actually paid because, although those couple years in grad school were sure fun, I still had a mortgage and occasionally needed to eat.  Now, I've got a couple dozen pieces published, mostly fiction, and an unpublished novel making the agent rounds while I start another novel.  I've been thinking a lot about the route I took after reading a blog post by Mike Wiecek.  Mike's post comments on an NYT article about the lack of work for professional photographers now that amateurs with digital cameras are willing to give their photos away.

When I got my first story accepted, at an online literary journal whose name I couldn't pronounce, I cried.  It was so exciting to see my fiction PUBLISHED! Of course, they didn't pay me anything. What did I care? This was what I had to do, according to my professors.  I had to work my way through the ranks, an apprenticeship so to speak, with the tiny, literary journals, which would hopefully lead to bigger journals, then national magazines and then I'd have the recognition through which I could launch my career as novelist.

But today, I'm wondering if I should have skipped the short story step, or at least jumped into a novel much sooner.  Learning to craft a short story did teach me about developing character and tension and all the important things that also go into a novel.  But, it sure didn't (and likely isn't) going to get me noticed.  There's no lack of journals out there.  There are online journals cropping up every day.  And each time one hangs out their shingle in cyberspace, their in-box is filled with hundreds of stories from people who also hope this will be their stepping stone to something big. 

I published two personal essays in a regional magazine and made $150 each. I thought I'd won the lottery.  I believe the grand total I have made by publishing short stories is under $50. This is one of the reasons I'm not excited about writing short stories anymore. All my friends are avid readers and no one reads short fiction (unless it's a novel in stories, such as "Olive Kitteridge"). There are fewer and fewer places with an audience of more than a couple hundred people that publish short fiction. It's fun to dream about having a piece in The New Yorker, but let's be realistic here.  Even Podunk Junction Quarterly had 1,000 submissions last year for six fiction slots; how many do you think The New Yorker had?

I guess I'm just in a different place in my life now, with two small children, and closer to 40 than 30. I don't want to waste time that I don't have. I want to write the best books I can and hope to see them published, even though I've never made it into a "big" magazine.  If that's jumping the line, so be it. The route to "success" for writers, and for all artists, is changing.