As everyone will now be sick of hearing, it took me over twenty years to get published, and that the purpose of these posts is to try and sift through the years of failure to identify things which held me back. Today’s is a big one. There are a number of potentially separate posts here but I’m rolling them into one under a single title: unprofessionalism.
Writing starts for most of us as an interest, a pastime, a private creative outlet. It might be glorified journal writing or another form of so-called self-expression, and it’s fun: a hobby with product. But at some point we decide we want to take it further. We want to be in book stores. It’s not enough to just write for ourselves anymore. We want to be published.
The specifics of how we get there, the pursuit of agents and editors, the honing of craft and polishing of process are the stuff of frequent posts here at MW, so I want to target something different but just as crucial. Call it an attitude. Because it’s not enough to know the steps towards getting published. At some point you have to start thinking of yourself not as a hobbyist but as a professional.
This is hard. We’ve all toyed with the question of when you can start calling yourself a writer or a novelist, and while calling yourself that before your work is generally available can invite awkward follow up questions (like “where can I buy your books?”) the attitude thing is crucial. When you complete your first novel, you are, crucially, a novelist. So start acting like one. In fact, start before your book is done.
That means that you take to heart everything sites like this tell you about the mechanical stuff (attending conventions, finding readers’ groups, learning to write a good query letter etc.) but it also means THINKING as a professional writer. One of my biggest mistakes was that I never took seriously what a writer friend once told me: if you’re going to be a novelist as well as an academic (or whatever your day job is) you need to make sure they both get equal time.
Now, I don’t want to be puritanical about this. I’m not one for arbitrary rules about how much you have to write per day, or when (if ever) you can take a day off, but there is an essential truth to the advice that I don’t think enough beginner writers take seriously (myself included). That is that you have to be serious about your craft, about the way you pursue publication, and that if you continue to think of writing as a hobby it will probably stay that way.
Here’s a for instance. I slipped into a pattern. Write a book, polish it, share with a few people, send it out to agents. Then wait. As many of you know, agents can take weeks or months to respond, and if you are sending out only a few queries at a time (as you should) the process by which a book finally gets rejected by everyone who might have been suitable for it can take years. In that time, the hobbyist sits by the phone for a while, and then very gradually starts to wrestle with the question of whether to write another book. After all, the last one which you had thought was great went nowhere and took 2 years to do so. Do you really want to go through all that again—the work, the waiting, the rejection? For what? I mean, it’s not like it really matters. You have a job, a life. The writing thing is just a hobby, right?
But it’s not. It can’t be. Not if you are going to succeed. Whether other people around you believe it or not, you have to act like writing is a job in which you are already employed. If it remains a hobby to you the stakes stay low: there’s no pressure on you to deliver.
One of the things professional writers learn is that in few cases is success about one book. That book might get you noticed, but success is about productivity, and publishers—though they commit to a book—are usually more interested in a career. So. If you are serious about this writing thing, send your (thoroughly polished) novel off to your (carefully researched and targeted agents). Give yourself a break for a little while. You have, after all, earned it. Then–soon–get to work on the next project. Don’t even consider waiting to see what happens to the last one.
You’ll find that this generates more product—which means you learn faster—but that it also takes your attention off the phone. It will also serve you well when you do make that first sale and when you suddenly don’t have the luxury of taking 3 years over your next book. You don’t have to quit your day job (and most writers really shouldn’t—though that’s a post for another day), but you do have to balance it with this other commitment. Take a look at your life and your priorities. You can’t spend 8 hours a day on all of them, so you are going to have to share. But if being a writer is something you really want, it’s going to have to rank up there with job and family. I eventually realized that there were certain things I used to enjoy, other hobbies like painting, woodworking etc. that were going to have to become very occasional if I was to give my writing the time it needed. Cutting some things almost completely out of my life was hard because they were part of me, but it also felt like pruning in order to give the really important stuff the best survival chance.