With the advent of digital publication, getting published is easier than it’s ever been. All you need to do is write your book, format your manuscript, slap a cover on it, and hey presto, you’re published. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the good side, it allows the publication and discovery of some superb writers for whom mass market publication proved elusive. On the bad, it removes the filtration system, the much-maligned “gatekeepers” so that there is little quality control. Amazon are distributors, not editors, and they care little for quality if they’re making money, and they can’t be faulted for that. They’ve never pretended to be anything else. But here’s a personal example of why gatekeeping is important.
About eighteen months ago, a woman contacted me via Facebook asking if I’d be interested in reading a few pages of her first novel-in-progress. My advice was the same as it always is: finish the novel first and come back to me. It’s rarely a good thing to get feedback on a few pages. If the response is negative, then it can kill your drive to continue. Present it as a whole and then get a critique, I advised. She insisted, however, so, feeling magnanimous, I agreed to read the first chapter. At best, it was derivative to the point of being plagiaristic; at worst, it was atrociously written. I wrote fourteen pages of notes (on a six-page chapter) outlining what I thought were the worst issues, and giving her some advice on how to proceed.
She never responded. Later that day, she unfriended me.
This is not uncommon, and it’s pretty much why (time constraints aside) I rarely agree to read an unfamiliar writer’s work when asked for a critique anymore. It’s because not everyone who asks for one wants one. Not really. What they want is validation, to be told they’re the next Stephen King. And I’m not interested in stroking egos or the dispensation of false praise. As a result of my (solicited) critiques over the years, I’ve been trolled and harassed, have garnered negative reviews of my books from writers who felt slighted, and have heard at conventions that those same writers have been spreading rumors about me. So it goes.
At the start of this year, I got a newsletter I hadn’t signed up for from the same woman. Her book had just been released on Amazon and had twenty-one five-star reviews. Quotes from magazines and reviewers I didn’t recognize were comparing her work to that of Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.
I visited the book page, clicked on the preview and saw that it was exactly the same first chapter she had sent me, misspellings, grammatical errors, nonsensical sentences and all. She hadn’t changed a word. And based on the rankings, the book was selling very well.
I was happy for her success, but also saddened that this had become the way of things.
It seems like nobody wants to do the work anymore. Nobody wants to earn their way up the ladder. Instead, they want instant gratification, immediate validation. They want the fame, the kudos, the recognition. The want to call themselves a WRITER, because it’s a romantic term that gives you a place in the world, lifts you above your own perception of mediocrity. Unwilling to commit to an endeavor if the process is too long or complicated, these people surround themselves with like-minded folk who do nothing to dispel their shared illusion. If someone wanders in and offers valuable, time-tested advice, they’re descended upon en masse by an army of the author’s familiars who take each and every attempt to help as a personal attack.
What’s truly suffering here is not me, not the author, not other writers, not even the industry, because all of these things will, in one way or another, survive.
What’s suffering is the craft. And that’s truly something to be mourned.
New writers today often ask me how I did it, and I’m always happy to tell them. But sometimes the question is couched in frustration and bitterness. It sounds like the question is actually: “Who gave you your success?”, “Who owed you a favor?”, or “How did you fall into it?”
As time goes by, I see this more and more, the implication that what success I have wasn’t earned, rather I came by it by accident, or it was bestowed upon me after beating an editor in a poker game. And the answer now is what it always has been, what it always will be: hard work.
I love writing. I never want to do anything else. It’s also the hardest job I’ve ever had. For all the validation you get when you finish a book and people like it, there’s also the isolation and loneliness required to write it in the first place. And if that’s not enough, the process of bringing a book to life is typically fraught with self-doubt, self-criticism, and feelings of inadequacy. And to write the dark stuff, you need to be familiar with the darkness in your own life, and rather than run away from it like most sane people do, you grab it with both hands, eat it, and then vomit it back out in prose form. That process is many things, but fun isn’t one of them.
Writing is tough, exhausting, at times dispiriting.
When you’ve labored over the writing of a novel for the better part of a year, when the idea has been with you for four, when you’ve lived in the world you’ve created, become the characters and bestowed all manner of horror upon them, and essentially lived no life outside of writing, and the first review you see is a one-star, one-word review: “Meh”, yeah, it can make you wonder why you do it at all. But you do it anyway, because failure is not an option. You do it because you have no choice, because you were born a writer and will die one, because you need to create these worlds and these people and these nightmares. Because it’s who you are.
When I was starting out as a writer, and by “starting out”, I mean attempting to break into publishing after years of writing for nobody but myself, I thought the process was a simple one. Not that it would be easy or that I’d be accepted into the literary world without paying my dues. I just thought I knew how the equation worked: (a) Write a story, (b) Find the market, and (c) Submit. It would either work out, or it wouldn’t. There was no grey area.
Driven by dreams and lifelong ambition, I was nevertheless aware that my chances were slim. After all, my work had never been judged by professional eyes, so I had no idea if I could even write worth a fig. However, I wasn’t about to be stopped by uncertainty, so I submitted my stories to the magazines and anthologies I felt were the best fit for what I was trying to do.
Months would pass, and every day (long before email submissions were commonplace) I would check the mailbox for a large brown manila envelope (I always enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope, so that I could pop that sucker back in the mail to another editor.) And for the longest time, every one of those envelopes contained a rejection. Some were form letters (“Due to the large volumes of submissions we receive, we are unable to respond to you personally…”), some were personal, and encouraging.
Others were brutal.
Despite the disappointment and the increase in uncertainty that I had any idea what I was doing, I persisted and sent more stories out into the world. And eventually, as I read and wrote and learned and clenched my teeth in feverish determination, they started getting accepted. It was slow at first, a ratio of maybe one acceptance for every ten rejections. But over time, that ratio changed and I was suddenly getting published in many of my favorite magazines, like Cemetery Dance and Subterranean. It got so that rejections were not the norm, though they never surprised me when I did receive them. (I get them still.) And the harsher critiques I got were invaluable. I tacked them up above my desk and referred to them whenever I needed to be reminded that my work was and probably always would be flawed in some way. Because it always is.
My dream has always been to be a published writer. I remember sitting in my bedroom as a teen daydreaming about winning a Bram Stoker Award (which I saw mentioned on the covers of many of the books I was reading) and giving readings to a packed house as part of a book tour. I imagined traveling the world, seeing displays of my hardcovers in bookstore windows. I imagined an office that looked out over a serene lake, my shelves lined with my books, the gaps between those shelves bearing the poster art for the movies they had made from some of them.
Cut to today, and now I do write for a living. I did win a Bram Stoker Award (God bless you, Turtle Boy, you ungainly, overwrought mess of a novella). To achieve the goal of professional writing, I had to leave my friends and family back in Ireland and relocate at age twenty-three to live in a country I had never been to before, with people I didn’t know, but that was the extent of the world travel. I’ve been doing this, professionally for over sixteen years now, but my books are not displayed in bookstore windows. There are hardly any bookstores left. I’m not rich, or well-traveled. I don’t own that house by the lake. My shelves are filled with copies of my books, most of them issued by independent and small press publishers. There are no movie posters on my walls (though a number of the books have been optioned), and yet, I have never been happier than I am right now.
Because this is the calling, and wherever I am on that lofty career ladder, I earned my place there.
When I tell these things to newcomers, to some of them, writing suddenly seems like too much work and not the idealized image that had driven them to try. Because the truth is, many people who get into this business do so under the illusion that it’s easy, that all it takes to be a successful writer is to sit down and write. And that’s partly true. But you also must be willing to learn. You must be willing to be told you are not special, that your work is not the best it can be, that you need to improve. The committed writer is always learning, always pushing to be better, and will die never reaching perfection. The goal is to try, and to entertain some folk along the way.
Because, yes, while it’s now easier than ever to be a published writer, it’s just as hard today as it’s always been to learn how to be a good one, and you have to want to, because without putting your heart and soul into it, without putting the work into it and earning your stripes, you’re just waiting at the train station for a ride that isn’t coming.