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  Now, I've got a couple dozen pieces published, mostly fiction, and an unpublished novel making the agent rounds while I start another novel.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.

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