There’s nothing quite like the early days of being a writer. Words suddenly carry more weight, and the thoughts behind them dive deeper than you ever thought possible, uncovering rare pearls of wisdom and buried secrets of the id. You discover and explore, imagine and create. You don’t have thoughts like Is there a market for this? or Is that cliché? And you’ll never be more impressed with your own writing as when you finish your first story. Because writing isn’t at all what you imagine at first.
It’s not sitting in Italian bistros, sipping espresso while people around you point and whisper, wondering if that’s really you. It’s not even whiling away your days reading and thinking and dreaming, far away from the monotony of a regular 9-5. It’s mostly sitting home alone on Friday nights, wrestling with your deepest insecurities, and it’s only fun when you’re winning. Indeed, you might be called to write, but you’re not called to fame or success. You’re not even called to just getting by. The universe doesn’t need you to write. You do.
When you first start out it all seems so possible. That cocksure Han Solo swagger—Never tell me the odds—comes so effortlessly then. But as it turns out, that strutting confidence hardens quicker than carbonite. You’ll send stories off to publishers like children to college, sure of their inevitable success, but in a few months, the rejection letters will start rolling in. You’ll keep at it, of course. You’ll persist. This is all part of the process. But this persisting is thirsty work, and a little embarrassing down the line. At some point, even the lunatic realizes persistence isn’t the key to getting the government out of his head.
If someone told me when I first started out how long it would take just to sell my first short story, let alone a much longer piece, I’m not sure I would have ever started down this path. People tell you it’s hard work, which it is, but they don’t tell you it’s just shy of impossible. Now I’m here, and I can’t go back. I think in story. I see the world in story. Some part of me, I think, always has. Fortunately, no one’s yet put it on a list of pre-existing conditions.
It’s rough business being a writer. If you want some sense of this, just take a look at any paying market’s acceptance rate: often less than 1%. Take heart, I guess. If you send them 100 stories, you’re bound to sell one! You can make it sound romantic as hell when describing the process to your friends—indeed, that’s one of the benefits. Writers spend their days building castles and keeps and palisades of sand, marching clay soldiers and mud siege engines against the rolling tide of rejection and all its indifference. And these thoughts might help you through the eight hours at the office or making five-hundred frappuccinos. But they won’t help you get published. Only writing does that. Lots and lots of writing. Reading too. Don’t forget the reading—possibly just as important as the writing. Market research helps as well. Also networking. You should really know some people by now. And, I’m not saying you should quit your job, but if you’re taking this seriously at all that 9-5’s kind of getting in the way.
Now I realize this might all sound quite bitter (to be fair, if I were a chocolate, I’d be of the 90% cacao variety). But the ultimate point is that if you’re trying to make it as a writer, it is a costly and discouraging enterprise. That brings us to the advice portion of this blog. Because writing is fun and all, but researching markets is suspiciously job-like despite the lack of paychecks or benefits. And that publication looking for the gritty-realism Adventure Time fan-fiction you wrote might be hard to find (Duotrope helps).
So here’s my advice if you think you want to be a writer, and it’s really very simple: Try giving it up. That’s right. Stop writing. See how it feels, what else pulls at you. Maybe you’re called to music instead. Or accounting. Believe me, if you’re called to be a writer, you’ll come back. And if you’re not, you will have saved yourself a lot of heartache, discouragement, and disappointment. Those who have “made it” suffered and fought for their success. They failed a hundred times before they met victory. And, dammit, you will too!
But only if that’s what you really want.
Because writing isn’t this glamorous thing we like to imagine for ourselves. It’s mostly hard work and self-doubt with the vague possibility that when you’re dead someone might remember you said something. If you can, I recommend giving it up. There’s a whole world out there you could be seeing, rather than dreaming up new ones in your head. But if you can’t give it up—if your characters wake you in the middle of the night with their hopes and fears, if you feel compelled to solve their problems like they’re some kind of unconscious representation of your own—then I’m afraid there’s no saving you. You’re a writer. Congratulations on finding your calling, at least. Some people search their whole lives without finding it. I’m sorry it isn’t more lucrative, but I hear Starbucks is hiring.