A Letter to My Younger Self about Writing and Publishing

Dear Tade,
Congratulations on getting a short story into your college magazine!
Right now, you’re feeling exhilarated, but have no intention of writing for publication. You are engrossed in science and all that comes with it. You study for most of your waking hours. You eat and drink while studying.
Your writing is casual. A story idea strikes you and you sit down, write it from start to finish, then walk away from it forever. You do not rewrite. In your English classes you were taught to have an essay plan, then charge ahead, never modifying after completion.
You write, you draw comics, all for your own consumption, and you are happy. The internet happens. Buy Apple stock, fool. And Pfizer stock-you won’t believe what they are going to invent.
Critique is Work
Join that Yahoo writing group, Quill_n_Ink. It will prove useful, at least in the beginning. The high rate of critique will give you a thick skin and discipline. Later, it will fragment, with the members spinning off into space, and only a few of us remain as writers today. Pro tip: not every writer is objective about critique. People take their writing personally for the most part. Only do this with and for people where there is mutual trust. Critique is also work, and you have to foster a kind of reciprocal arrangement or find some other way of “paying” for it.
Speaking of paying, you’re not going to find that book doctor useful. Save your money.
You will learn what Call for Submissions actually means. When your story gets selected in Carillion, you’ll be happy, but then you get introduced to Contributor’s Copies. Never work for contributors copies or exposure. You don’t need exposure. If your writing is good enough consistently enough, they’ll pay for it sooner or later. Be patient. If they don’t pay, they don’t value it. Try asking the supermarket to give you aubergines “for exposure”, or telling the plumber to do some free work so that you’ll tell your friends. Later for that, man.
Yes, read Strunk and White. Read The Creative Writing Coursebook edited by Bell and Magrs.
Now, you’re writing every day, at least a thousand words, in the morning. You rewrite late at night. Rewriting is this mysterious thing that you do not get, but which you think you’re doing. You’re not.
All About The Benjamins…
You’re going to sell a story, your first paid one. You will not enjoy this experience, but it will be helpful. The editor makes editing suggestions. You trust him to be a professional, and he knows the business, right, otherwise why would he be an editor? Yeah, no. The main lesson you learn from here is always check the edits. It hurts, because the story is nothing like what you wanted, but that’s a mistake you never make again.
The post-grad Creative Writing thing at University of London? Don’t bother with that. It’s two years of imaginary progress. It does not improve your writing. You still do not know how to rewrite.
By now, you know that the key to writing is to read a lot and write a lot, but that’s some simplistic cowdung. You are doing both, but you can tell that your writing is not better. You’ve been reading all your life, and you know how to recognise good prose. You just don’t know how to make it.
You make a sale to a semi-pro zine. Look at that. Someone gave you money for your writing. It feels like a fluke, and, dude, it is. You are so prolific with the words that you were bound to write something readable at some point. The Shakespeare’s Monkey Rule.
You keep reading, you keep writing.
By this time you have three trunked novels. The ideas are fine, but the execution is somewhat amateurish. You have no clue how to fix them. You have sporadic publication in small press, but most of your rejections come back saying essentially, “learn how to revise”, but you don’t.
You decide to stop. I think this is a good thing, and it lasts two years. You write no fiction, you tell yourself you’ve stopped seeking serious publication. Unfortunately, writing is a hard habit to shake and you fill dozens of journals with your thoughts.
Just When I Thought I Was Out…
 
Your friend Raymond tells you about this anthology looking for stories with black protagonists. With like one day to the deadline you send in a story. That was how you get into Mothership from Rosarium Publishing. This is a positive experience. At almost the same time you get a query from the editor of The Apex Book of World SF 2-he wants to reprint one of your stories. This will lead to a number of productive relationships that help to this very day.
You start to write fiction again. This time you know how to read, how to dissect a book and get to know why it’s good or bad. That book you got from a second-hand bin? 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: What to Read and How to Write by Jane Smiley? Don’t take so long to finally notice and read it. Save some time and read David Madden’s Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers.
Finally, you know what revision means, and you are better equipped for serious fiction writing.
The Rosarium guy asks, “What else you got?” and you want to give him that weird, violent, alternative history, West African novel called Making Wolf. Do not. This is a mistake. You’ve been shopping this novel about for years, and while individual editors seem to like it, nobody knows how to market it, so they won’t take a chance. What you should do instead is be satisfied that you’ve written a good book, trunk it, and write the next thing.
But you won’t do that. You’ll give it to Rosarium guy because of your Mothership experience and misplaced loyalty. Rosarium will neither pay you nor provide accounts, using weird verbal acrobatics when you query. But don’t let that sour you on small presses because it teaches you…
The Truth About Small Presses
Don’t despair. You work with others like Solaris and Apex who are great. Small presses are fantastic and take more chances with unclassifiable work like what you write. But you have to do your due diligence, son. Anybody can set up a small press. What you do is find out who they have published and ask them about their experience. What’s the editing experience like? Wherefore art thou, publicity? How promptly to author copies arrive? How flexible are they about cover-design? Where’s the cash coming from? Are the staff both professional and friendly?
Write with your heart, revise with your mind, sell with your brain.
 
You Are The Only Beholder That Counts
 
I have to remind you, buddy, because you already figured this out when you were five and drew Hulk/Sub-Mariner slugfests on pink typing paper. You write because you enjoy it.You don’t need permission to tell your stories. It’s okay for nobody else to like what you write. No, really, it is.
Sometimes you’ll sell your work. Other times, not so much, but that’s okay because you have created a thing that wasn’t in the world before. A beautiful thing, even if you are the only beholder who thinks so. You are the only beholder that counts. Sure, there are parasites in the system who will try and bully you, but you know what? Most publishing folks are okay. It may not seem like it, but I’ve met some really hard-working, passionate people.
So…
 
Remember, be patient, critique is work, never work for free, avoid corrupt presses, you don’t need permission to write, and you are the only one who needs to enjoy what you’ve written.
I’ll be in touch five years from now.
Lots of love,
Tade
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3 Comments

Filed under creativity, fiction, story, Uncategorized, writing

3 responses to “A Letter to My Younger Self about Writing and Publishing

  1. Koryu

    Thank you. This is really helpful. Book by David Madden is on its way to me from the US now (order just placed) and I now have the reminder to really get through ‘The creative writing coursebook’ which sits on the desk in front of me.
    The not writing for free hit a note. I have submitted a short to an anthology and the publisher pulled out. The rest of us authors are looking at self publishing it and someone just said ‘what about if we just made it a free ebook’. I thought good publicity for them, with my newbie level it is not like this is the time for me to argue about money and I am not worried about the price but if it is worth reading and writing then even a little goes a long way so let’s see.

    • Hi,
      Believe it or not the “let’s make a free anthology” impulse is very common. I mentioned a Yahoo group above and we did that too 🙂 I have not heard or read of a single time it boosted anyone’s career. It might have, but having read a lot of biographies of a lot of writers, not a single one has said, “my big break came when I participated in a free anthology”.

      It is far better, far more useful to spend your time honing your craft, close-reading published work and trying to crack semi-pro and pro magazines as well as writing your own books. The time spent writing a novel is never wasted, even if the book isn’t that great. As long as you can be self-reflective, examining your work to see what you’ve done right and wrong, you will improve. You don’t need publicity until you’re at the level where editors pay for your fiction anyway.

  2. Pingback: Links Roundup: 12/09/16 — Pretty Terrible

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