Friday, September 11, 2009


The True Business of Writing: Building a Career (Portland's Wordstock Festival)

For a long time, I thought that becoming a writer was something happened to other people. Like, it just happened to them. You know-a fairy godmother waved her wand and then, tada, they, the chosen, became writers. It couldn't possibly happen to me.

I'd look at bios of authors on book jackets and think: Wow. She knew someone. She went to Harvard. He must have had connections. He's from New York. Her mother was a literary agent. He worked at an edgy newspaper. I am from a small town in California. My father was a farmer. I don't know anyone. I'm screwed.

And maybe, just maybe, you look at me and think: Hey! She had connections! She went to an Ivy League school! Of course she got a book deal. I promise you, it's not true. I had absolutely zero connections at one point. I do not have family members in publishing. My father was really supportive of me, but he worried a lot, and thought perhaps I should learn to be a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, or an international lawyer, capitalizing on my language skills. It just happens sometimes that you can work your ass off and make a dream come true.

I didn't really find that reading biographies of writers was particularly helpful. Most of these books talk about the writer's early beginnings, their influences, their struggles and then the challenges of writing each book, ie, they focus on the art of writing (as they should). But how, I always wondered, did these writers I admired--Steinbeck, Twain--build their careers? How did they get agents? How did they get published? What are the nuts and bolts of building a career? What does it look like on the inside?

On the rare occasion that I ran into a real writer (generally an airplane), I would ask for advice and was usually told: "Keep writing." And, yes, that's true. There is no writing career without writing. And, yes, craft is very, very important. But I still wondered: how does this becoming a writer thing happen? Sure, there are some books out there that discuss query letters and submissions and dealing with rejection. But they don't really tell you all that much. I think the closest thing I found to a illustrate "the truth" was Anne Lamott's book "Bird by Bird," in which she describes the editing process she underwent for her second novel. That was painful to read. That was helpful to remember when I was editing my first novel yet again for my agent. She also makes it very clear that a well written book is likely to find a home. I found that comforting too. The Poets and Writers message boards were also very helpful to me in the beginning. And again, I want to make clear--there is no substitute for actually doing the work and doing it well. The greatest weapon you'll have if you want to build a writing career is to actually write.

But there is so much more for young writers to know. What are the real odds of submission/rejection/acceptance? Does anyone actually get out of the slush pile? Is there really some focused way to build a career? How, in god's name, do you know if you are really making any progress?

I became really serious about writing about six years ago--and I say this as someone who had always wanted to be a writer, but as it turns out, was mostly spinning her wheels--and finally have an idea of what is involved. I'm going to try to share what I've learned with people next month, when I teach a class at Wordstock, in Portland, Oregon. If you are around, I hope you'll swing by. I'll be brutally honest about my experiences. I'll tell you how I squandered time just generally being insecure and afraid of rejection. I'll be showing you some of my rejection letters and talking about the lessons I learned from them. I'll show you some of my publication/rejection stats. I'll show you my very first query letter. I'll show you some horrible query letters. I'll try to be as honest as I can about how to go about building your career.

The thing is--all professions require that we think consciously about what we are doing and how we can do it better. I don't understand why writing should be any different. Yes, your work and the quality of your work is still the most important thing, and, yes, there is no point in starting your professional career until your writing is at a certain level. And because writing is an art, and all the arts are sort of subjective and nebulous, it is a little harder to chart a path in it than it is to, say, become a physician where the steps are much more clearly defined.

But I think there's too much mystery surrounding publishing, and I don't like that.

Next month, I'll endeavor to demystify as much as I can, and I hope you'll swing by and join my class if you are around.

I look forward to your forthcoming posts on this topic. I always appreciate a fellow writer sharing their knowledge. I'm in the midst of revising a debut novel before seeking representation. I went to a writer's forum at Columbia Univesity yesterday and recieved positive feedback so that was encouraging. I just discoverd you and the brooklyn book festival tonight or I would have stopped by and checked you out. I'll be following your blog. Good luck in your future literary endeavors.
Caboozie--Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad to learn that what I wrote here was useful. So you know, I spent a year working for a literary agency and learned a great deal. It was alarming to see the truth but at the same time--in the end--made me much more realistic about things.

I hadn't honestly thought about continuing to post on this subject. But with you kind comment, and other personal notes from people, I will try to find a way to continue to comment on this subject. It is true that publishing and building a career are mysterious. They should not be.

I don't know if you ever go to the Poets and Writers message boards, but they were quite helpful to me at one point. The format has changed, and I don't know how the information is now, but you will get some sense of people moving through the stages of submission/rejection/publication.

Anyway, keep at it! And thanks for stopping by.
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