Dear Former Self Circa March 2004,
I suppose it’s most common to write these sorts of things at five- or ten-year intervals. The whole “humans have five fingers on each hand, making multiples of five and ten natural points at which to parse out our world” thing. But I couldn’t have written you this letter two years ago, and I suppose in another three, I’d have something else entirely different to say. At least, I hope so, because if I don’t, that means I won’t have grown at all.
So, I’m writing this letter to you now. I picked you because you’re on the cusp of graduating college, and maybe you’re ready to hear this. Maybe if you’d heard it, it would’ve impacted you.
Or not. Maybe you did hear it in college, but it just didn’t stick because you’re a young adult, full of optimism, thinking that the general rules of writing and publishing didn’t apply to you.
I do know our 16-year-old-self couldn’t have taken what I’m about to tell you. She needed to feel she was good at something, that she had talent, that she was worthwhile. It’s quite possible that if she’d been told what I’m about to tell you, she would’ve stopped writing, and I know neither of us would’ve wanted that.
But I’m hoping you, Former Self Circa March 2004, are in a place to hear this. After all, you fancy yourself practical about this whole writing thing. That essay thingummy you had to write for the “real world for English majors” college class you’re in, where you listed your desired job (writer, naturally) and what you had to do to make that happen? As I recall, you got an A, and your professor gave positive feedback on your practicality. You considered things like how you’d pay for health insurance! You wrote about setting up a budget, since a writer’s income varies widely and you wouldn’t make a regular salary month to month! You thought about how as a self-employed person, you’d have to set aside approximately 50% of your income to make sure you covered taxes, as your wages wouldn’t be garnished and you’d be responsible for that extra tax that you didn’t remember the name of, but it existed, you knew it did!
You were right about those things. I don’t think it was a bad essay, really. But brace yourself, Former Self, because what I’m about to tell you, you would have thought impossible.
We’re 34 now, and we’re still not published.
It’s okay if you need to take a moment to absorb that. I understand.
Ready to continue? Good.
Now, before you go blaming me and saying in my old age (mrph) I gave up on our dream, the truth is, we vastly underestimated the amount of work required to get our art to the point where people will pay us for it. By vastly, I mean our underestimation was more like the size of Asia than Texas.
Because for years and years, you (I) didn’t do the work. Come November of 2004, you’ll learn about NaNoWriMo, and you’ll decide to participate for the first time. That’s great! You’ll “win,” and write over 50,000 words during the month of November. You’ll start a yearly tradition that you follow for the next seven years, striving each time to beat your previous year’s word count. And you do, and it’s fine and dandy, but that’s pretty much the only writing you’ll get done during those seven years, and that is not great. It’s not dedicated practice, and it won’t be enough to get us where we need to be in order to be publishable.
No one asked you to say it out loud, I know, but you had this idea in your head that getting published would be easy, once you had the right book. That you’d send it out and get an agent and presto, within like a year you’d be published. Or that, if you decided to write short fiction, you’d get a story finished in a month, maybe two, then send it out and in a month, maybe two, have it accepted, and then, in another month, maybe two, it’s out in the world, because most magazines are online now and so it doesn’t take as long to publish, right? Six months is a reasonable time for a short story to appear, right?
Oh, sweetie. No. No, it’s not.
But that’s kind of beside the point right now, because the truth is, you’re not as good a writer as you think you are. I mean, you’re not bad. You’ve got good ideas. You can turn a pretty sentence. You can turn lots of pretty sentences. And yes, you’re good enough to take first place in a college writing contest that hardly anyone’s ever heard of and that even *you* understand isn’t really a credit that will get you anywhere. (Spoiler: You’re right; it doesn’t; we’ve [wisely] never listed it on any cover letters, and it’s not mentioned on our current website. Because it “paid” in free books we never received, and it doesn’t matter.)
So that’s nice. But you understand very little about what actually makes a story work. You don’t know how to build a satisfying character arc over the course of a novel. You don’t know what character agency is. You hate outlining. (To be fair, I still hate outlining. But I understand attempting it can maybe cut out some of the writing and rewriting and rewriting and more rewriting that we also hate.) You’ve got a lot of work to do. And the work you do during NaNoWriMo isn’t enough.
You will get feedback for some of those NaNoWriMo novels, which is good. I think the 2008 one is the first that you actually finish, that you get to stick The End on. Which is excellent, because you can’t sell an unfinished novel. It’s still not publishable, though. Because, again, you don’t understand character arc, and boy HOWDY do you not get character agency.
My biggest writing regret for you, for us, is that it takes widespread layoffs at your day job in 2012 to make you get serious about writing. But thank God, literally, that you don’t lose your job, because even though beginning in March 2012 you do take writing seriously and you do devote yourself to improving your craft, the next four years still aren’t enough to get you published. Writing isn’t the backup plan you think it’ll be, because somehow even when you repeatedly hear “don’t quit your day job” and that the average advance for a first time novelist being $5000, it doesn’t sink in. Those calculations you made about how long a severance package could last you, vis a vis how long it might take an agent? The severance package would’ve lasted, at best, a quarter of the time. You need your day job while you work at getting better. We’ll need it probably even after we’re publishable.
Because remember that bit where I said we’re not published yet? I am a better writer than you are, and I know so much more, and it’s still only getting me some hold notices and personal rejections on short stories, no acceptances. It’s been two years since I’ve sent a novel out to agents, but it was the same case there, really: a full out and a partial out, but no acceptances.
I hope I haven’t discouraged you too badly, though. We do have markers to show we’ve made progress, in the twelve years since I was you. I mean, in 2005, you’ll get accepted into multiple MFA programs, and you’ll choose the one in Chicago. Granted, it won’t terribly helpful in actually becoming a better writer, since that first semester is devoted mostly to generating ideas, which you don’t need help with. (I do think it was the right decision to quit, by the way; you didn’t need yet another semester of “learning to generate ideas” before you even get to the real-writing bit in year 2. You needed to learn craft and structure.) (Still, I don’t regret that we went. We did benefit from our time there, just not in ways related to writing. That’s another letter, though.)
[Thus commences the years of not doing the work, so don’t be surprised that I don’t have anything to report until:]
You’ll be a finalist in a local genre fiction novel writing competition in 2013. (You won’t win, but in a previous year you didn’t final at all, so: progress.)
Then in 2014, you”ll be accepted into Viable Paradise, which, let me tell you, is HUGE to our development and you are going to be so, so glad to go, and then so, so glad you went.
2015 is kind of a meh year regarding accomplishments, but then again, it’s when we learn quite a lot of what I told you up above regarding the business of writing and how hard it is to get published. Your blinders come off, and you work more on your short story craft. On the strength of your VP attendance, you also join Codex, an online community for spec-fic neo-pros. That’s fabulous because it, too, challenges you to be a better writer, and teaches you more about the realities of publishing. So: progress.
Still with me? I hope you are. Because, even though I’m not where you thought I’d be, I’m doing the work to become a better writer. I haven’t given up. I hope that in another twelve years I’ll be in a position to write Former Self Circa March 2016 about how yes, now we’re published (ideally long-ago published!) but there’s quite a lot I didn’t know. And yet, look at how far we’ve come. Growth is always better than stagnation.
So I’m glad you never gave up, Former Self, even if you were a little too lackadaisical about writing. That you never gave up means we were able to grow. And for that, I am thankful.
Much love and many hugs,
Current Self, March 2016