When I was a young writer (sung to the tune of “when he was a young warthog”) and we rented our first house, the landlord who was maybe all of five years older than us (maybe 28) asked my profession.
Since at the time I did not have a job, I told him none. He asked me what I did all day, and my husband told him I wrote novels. The landlord insisted on putting down “writer” as my profession, which embarrassed me mortally, since I didn’t think I was one/hadn’t done anything to deserve being called that. Or at least so I thought.I also thought it highly unlikely I’d ever be a PUBLISHED writer.
Look, it’s not false modesty. We’d lived in an apartment for two years (the move to the house was to get my husband closer to his job, because traffic had started getting bad and an hour and a half to get home was too much) and I’d tried my hand at writing in English/for publication that long. It was enough to realize I had no perceivable natural talent (actually I do, for characters, but if your plot is a dog’s breakfast, the characters won’t save it.) I’d also read enough of writers’ magazines and “how I got published” interviews to realize it was a business that relied on contacts in the field and/or attending conferences and workshops.
I was totally without contacts, and I had no money to attend workshops. On top of that, I knew my language was stilted and odd, coming from having learned English in a classroom and not at mama’s knee.
Purely on the odds, the chance of my ever getting published were about 0 or maybe less. So I was both flattered, terrified and embarrassed by the man insisting I was a writer. He told me “if you write, you’re a writer. Publication doesn’t confer any special king of aura. It’s what you do that counts.”
Eventually he became one of my first readers, until we moved away, and I feel mildly embarrassed I can’t remember his name.
Anyway, moving on: I obviously made it to publication. Sure. But there was nothing obvious to me, from the inside, as I was fighting my way in. And honestly, looking at the people I met along the way, in better circumstances than I, at least to the extent they weren’t ESL, the only thing I have over them is that I’m too stupid to give up. Or that, say after my first series crashed and burned, every time I was ready to throw in the towel, something happened that made me need the money, so I had to keep writing/take work for hire/write all the short stories, because the circumstances (small kids) didn’t allow me to get an outside-the-house job.
And I will confess that of all the challenges, the one I still wrestle with is making my writing more colloquial. If you saw my first revision on manuscripts, you’d see it’s mostly that. The weird thing is that I got published WAY before I even realized my language was stilted, because… Shakespeare.
Honestly, I probably could have written historical and “literary” till the cows came home, but I wanted to do other stories, particularly space opera and contemporary mysteries.
Anyway, this far in, twenty years after I got my first novel acceptance, I was thinking about all the indie writers who need to be “published” and sign appalling contracts with micro presses, because they need the validation of someone else, out there, telling them their work is good enough to publish.
What I want to tell you is this: You’re good enough. And if you’re not good enough, you can get good enough. You need three things to become “good enough”: Practice, an understanding of your failings (and here you need to be ruthless and dispassionate), and an ability to learn and seek instruction (and there are how to books to correct every possible failing from “how to write vivid scenes” to “how to plot.”)
Understand — though it might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t been through the mill of traditional publishing for decades — that achieving publication is not like passing a test at school. Being published by a publisher doesn’t mean you “made the grade.”
Over the years and contact with more beginner writers than I can count, I have known amazing writers who never managed to get published, and barely acceptable beginners who got bought first step out. Getting bought depended on what the publisher was looking for (which often had more to do with current fads or hit movies than how good your story was. Hence Shakespeare for me, coming at a peak of Shakespeare-mania in movies.), whether they’d met you and liked you, or something in your book (sometimes something really stupid, like the boyfriend’s description or something) resonated with the buying editor. Seriously, that’s it. It has zero, zilch and nothing to do with your basic competency or even marketability.
Well, to an extent the New York publishers were buying for a certain market. No, not the public, silly, but the bookstore buyers, whom the buying editors understood since they’d all usually attended similar colleges and taken similar courses.
The fact that this was completely out of kilter with the buying public didn’t matter. After all, you know, those hicks in fly over country don’t read. They’re not literate enough to. And besides, it’s natural for printruns to fall continuously year over year, because
radio, movies, television, computers, the public isn’t literate anymore. Look at what TV they watch. Look at whom they vote for.
This was fine, so long as the bookstores were the only way to reach the public. Well, not fine, but to the extent you could sell it was because you appealed to the bookstore buyers first, so if you flopped after that, it was those d*mn rubes, reading less and less every year. And obviously, the buying editors knew the bookstore reps better than you.
If, as a reader, you fell through the genres trying to escape boring, from science fiction to fantasy, from fantasy to mystery, from mystery to romance, and from romance to non-fiction (when the houses became convinced the reason romance sold was erotica and started doing just that) well, it was just you. I mean, the bookstores wouldn’t stock all that stuff if it didn’t sell, would they? And few readers were privy to the catastrophic drop in print runs from 70k (on average in the 80s) to 6k (on average in the oughts.)
So, it’s reasonable, in a world where traditional was your only way to reach your readers, for you to long to sell to an editor. And it was easy, emotionally, to confuse that with “good enough.”
But it was never quality. It was a bunch of other factors, but not quality. Look, seriously, we don’t even know what “quality” is. If we did, college professors wouldn’t equate it with “politically significant.” It’s just a fad to do so, and they’re following their teachers.
Writing is communication. That means “quality” should be that which reaches the most readers possible.
Objectively for someone with a literature degree, aside from the politics, which were rather typical for his time, Edgar Rice Burroughs is an appalling writer. He tells when he should show, he inserts his opinions, his language was stilted even for his time. And yet, he sold enough and reached enough readers he made a deep imprint in the culture, and fired up millions of imaginations (including my own, in Portugal, as a child.)
One thing I’ve noticed with indie is that “pulpish sells.” If you write fast, breathless pulp, with lots of things happening you will sell.
That’s the issue, see? We don’t know what’s good in the sense of “what sells.”
The middlemen who inserted themselves between writers are public imposed their own taste. It was always obvious to those looking at the internals of the business, that the taste of the middle men had nothing to do with the taste of the consumers. But we have no clue how dissonant it is. We still don’t.
It’s as though a spice company had monopoly of all the spices in the world, and over the years had decided what you really wanted to cook with was camphor, bay leaves and saffron. Many people adapted their palates, and many stopped using spices altogether. Then the company goes bankrupt and a thousand little companies crop up. What to sell? Garlic? Oregano? Pepper? Salt?
No one knows. There is no market-tested route, except the one the big houses took, and that tests…. badly.
The good news is that each year, more people who’d deserted the new market and bought only used, are making a come back. Sometimes they come back because they found that an old favorite is publishing indie. Sometimes they come back because they had a book recommended to them. However, one thing is certain, the market is way bigger than it used to be. It is also more niche. There is room for everyone and everything. So there is probably a market for your bat-expert romance and your horticulture mysteries. And indie pays the author better, so you can make a better living with a niche audience.
Do you write? Then you’re a writer. You don’t need anyone to validate you. No, not even your mommy or your cat. (Greebo is giving me a skeptical look on this.)
Write, practice, learn. Be ruthlessly honest to yourself. Improve your defects. If you’re very insecure, use a pen name at first. Just don’t make it a ridiculous pen name, because Ima Nidiot might shock you by becoming a bestseller.
You’re a writer. The world is wide open to you.