I see it around the Internet, in blogs and on forums, I see the writing spirit in so many of us. I see the wings unfolding and the head lifting high, so eager, so ready – in the heart, at least – to fly.
I see the raw talent, some of it rough as yet, but I can see the spark of energy that comes in a choice of words or a play of action – energy that will one day grow into something formidable and become the driving force of something very substantial and wholly unstoppable. The writer is born and is very aware.
I see some polished talent, too, the progress further along. A string of words that captures a scene most vibrantly, or a decision to include something small and human that so many overlook – the spread of a hand against a wall, the dust and warmth of the air – something you have to be there to see or feel, and so you are! Sprinkled just right, these human things lift the reader right out of their armchair and into the heart of the story.
In each step, I see my own progression. I remember when I was there, or there, or there. It’s so very much what I did – what we all do or at least try.
I also see the frustration in many writers, years of it. I’ve been there, too. I know exactly what you are feeling. It’s like being caged. You work so hard and so long, you’ve got talent and ideas, but there are bars all around you and you can’t get out, you’re not going anywhere, and won’t until you pick the lock. Trouble is, you don’t know where the lock is or how to pick it. A key? You dream of a key, brought to you, ornate and golden, presented by an outside agency that, with kind heart and gently persuasion, will unlock the cage and let you be who you really are – a writer.
But the years are going by, and still you work and hone and polish, and seem to get nowhere. When is it going to change? When will it happen? When? Will it ever happen? Are you wasting your life?
How many in frustration have turned away and thrown away their work. How many return, or are dragged back screaming. It’s against your will, but you have to do this. This is what you are, a writer.
So you wait, and you hone and you polish and you throw stuff out and start over, and you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Going nowhere…
…it seems. Because I see something more, something perhaps easily missed. Something that I myself didn’t see until after I finally picked the lock and got outside that cage that held me back for so long.
Truth is, you are not “going nowhere”. You are in training. You are training to be the best. The years you spend struggling, despairing, hoping and waiting will turn out to be the most important years of your life. It just doesn’t look like that now.
Let me put it into a personal perspective. I wanted to be a writer when I was eight. I poked around with it a couple of times, but settled into it more around the age of eleven or twelve, more daydreaming than actual writing – you know how it is. Puberty brought with it great heights (I thought) or passion and desire and between then and eighteen, I probably wrote the worst flirt-date-fumbling-not-quite-sex scenes in the history of writing. At seventeen I had a story… well, a plot of sorts. It was lousy, but I didn’t know that. I was seeing what was inside my head, not what was on the page.
Folks, if someone had come to me back then, bearing an ornate golden key and offered me a way out of my cage to be what I always was – a writer – I’d have jumped at the chance. I’d have felt so fulfilled, so grateful, so wonderful… Right up until the time I was shot down in flames about two seconds out of the starting gate. I wasn’t able to handle criticism. I wasn’t able to see my work accurately, as a reader would, blinded as I was by my own inner ideas and dreams. Had I gone out into the wide world with that, my work would have been torn to shreds. My soul then would have burned with shame and embarrassment and I would likely have never picked up a pen again.
Just as well I didn’t have that key.
At age twenty, I knew the story I wanted to tell was junk and I threw it out. The story (mercifully) died. One of the background characters refused to go down, however, and some months later crawled out of the bin and came and got me. She had a different name then, but you all know her as Aleisha. She had a story to tell, what about her story?
Yes, that’s right, I crawled all through most of my developing years, honing my skills on what is now a piece of work I am proud to put my name to.
Does that mean The Khekarian Threat took thirty years to write? No, it doesn’t. It was a completely different story then. I couldn’t write for toffee back then. I didn’t have the discipline or the skill, and research was something still a bit new and exciting. Does this mean I took thirty years to learn how to write? Yes, it does, to this level of experience. Experience that’s important.
I know that had I published at age twenty-one, I would undoubtedly now hate it. It would have been immature and miserable and definitely would leave me with a nervous tic and an acute case of embarrassment. Had I published at age thirty, it would not have been much better.
Rightly or wrongly, those damn agents and publishers with their promising ornate golden key that never arrived, kept me at my desk, honing my skills and determination until one day, I knew I really had the product.
By the time I received my last rejection slip late in 2012, I no longer blamed myself for their rejection of my work. I knew what I had was good and polished to within an inch of its life. It had been researched inside out and backwards. It was – and is – a bloody good read.
So it confused me more than depressed me (although it did that, too), that rejection. It made me look closer at the whole field where I learned some very ugly truths about the industry. The worst was learning that many agents will reject a manuscript based on the first sentence of the cover letter. That’s right. The cover letter. Many don’t look at your manuscript at all, many don’t even read your letter through. If it doesn’t grab them in the first few seconds, you’re out and they get on with rejecting the next one.
The industry blames the Internet for falling sales, but it’s not the Internet that’s doing it. Publishers push the new books onto the shelves, then whip them straight off again, so there is no chance for word of mouth to build a reputation of the author. Not much chance for a reader to find you at all. To combat the problem, they move the stock even faster. They think speed equals more books and therefore more sales. Yet, it doesn’t.
So, I looked at all this and I knew I had two choices. One, find the nearest bridge and jump off it. I’m over fifty years old. How can I abandon my life’s work and find a new career, now? Had I really wasted my life? When Greg retires, was I going to end up cleaning toilets or some such menial task because I hadn’t trained in a field that would see me working my way up some corporate ladder?
Or, two, I could follow what all the other sensible authors are doing and say “Screw you,” to the publishing field, and do it myself.
Well, you know which way I went. I looked into doing it myself and found that publishing is not at all they way it was back in my youth. Back then self-publishing was frowned upon. You forked out thousands of dollars and ended up with a suitcase full of books that you had to try and sell door-to-door. Nowadays it’s the Internet, publishing on demand (meaning a book is made when it is ordered and there is no fee to pay out first), and automatic distribution world-wide. Now you’re talking!
Okay – to get back on track – Not everyone takes as long as I did to get to a professional level of skill. Not everyone takes as long to figure out how to pick the lock on their cage. No one brought me a key. I broke out myself, but I was ready. Seriously ready. Not only ready, but capable, I proved that to myself when I finished book two in the series (The King’s Sacrifice) in only nine months and ended up with a riveting story equal to if not better than The Khekarian Threat.
So, I’m flying. I’m new to it and still working hard and in many ways still waiting, but I am flying. Will I burn out? I don’t think so. Will I be shot down? No. I know and trust my work too much for that, I’ve worked so long on my skills. I’ve also toughened my skin against years of reject letters.
What else do I see out there? What I see out there is a heck of a lot of genuine talent being wasted by an industry that no longer cares about writers or readers. The publishers have lost the plot. The agents are drowning under a sea of manuscripts. New agents are springing up, but they are not accepted by the publishing houses, so the agents that are acceptable to them have no choice by to skim first sentences in cover letters and move on. Think of what they miss!
So, the industry is sick, and writers are going around them. Yet that sickness actually worked in my favor because I would not give up. It kept me trying harder. And harder. Until finally I realized that the brick wall isn’t a brick wall at all – it’s a steel one. I was outside the box. My writing, my stories, my characters were all too full somehow, I didn’t fit anybody’s template.
Jump off the bridge or self-publish?
If you are a writer, it’s good to know these things. Whatever is holding you up – use it to your advantage. Recognize the value of these years of so-called “going nowhere”.
Every action you do as a writer – every word you write, every word you change, every new direction you go in – is building you stronger and stronger. You are not wasting time. You are not wasting your life. If you weren’t meant to make it, you would have given up on writing years ago. Writing weeds out the weak-willed very quickly.
The industry is suffering because it has adopted a bean-counting, hurry-them-along philosophy, but writing is not dead and we no longer have to accept their limitations.
My message? Have faith in yourself and in your strengths. Have faith in your work, whatever level you are at. Whether you find an agent and a publisher, or whether you step out there and do it yourself when the day comes, the spark that you have, the spark that is in there, speaks of what will grow.
You are, and always will be, a writer.