On who will make it [as a writer] and who will not…
The people who won’t make it are the people who won’t do the work. Period. I am not sure you can ‘see’ this in a person, it’s just a reality. Take something very difficult to do, and 90% or better of the population will throw up its hands at some point and quit. The other 10% (or less) are the ones who stay on “The Wall” (as I like to call it) for however long it takes and however much work is required, until they get over the top.
So what is work in writing terms?
Work is daring to do more than just write fanfic for personal fun.
Work is writing, even when you don’t feel like it.
Work is writing, even after you’ve gotten 10 rejections. 50 rejections. 100 rejections. 150 rejections. And so on, and so forth, because rejections never end, even after you break in.
Work is relentlessly creating new fiction, not endlessly “polishing” the same old piece(s) in your inventory. I think tons of new writers get hung up here, because they are afraid to let go of what they’ve created previously and move on.
Work is going to cons, workshops, retreats, and learning from pros. Again, I think lots of new writers get hung up here because they’re scared to expose themselves to a potentially tough environment and/or the examining eyes of people with more experience.
Work is realizing it may take many years to gain even a little success.
Work is realizing even a little success does not guarantee still more success.
Work is not getting jealous when other writers succeed.
Work is continuing to write, even after 10+ years of rejections and not a single break-in sale. How many of you can say you’ve been writing for a decade with no sales, and are keeping at it?
Work is continuing to write, even after 15+ years of rejections. Had enough yet? If you have, you will not make it. If you can keep at it even after this many years, maybe you have what it takes to succeed.
Work is never giving up.
No matter what.
Never quitting. EVER.
The vast majority of writers are not willing to do the work. The above is a small roadmap of my “new” writing career. It took never giving up to break in, and it takes never giving up to stay in. I’m just a “baby” in the SF & F authorial community, but this doesn’t reflect the years and the effort I had to put in — the many hundreds of thousands of words of dead stories and dead books, all “practice” that will never see print — for my quality level to rise to the point where it’s now “entry level” by professional standards.
Having topped “The Wall” I can see a whole new range of peaks to climb, challenges to overcome. You all still on the “wall” need to be ready: the work never stops. If you can’t handle the idea of working — constantly, for the rest of your career — then get off the “The Wall” and go do something else.
Otherwise, commit yourselves in your souls to doing whatever it takes, however long it takes, to make it.
On being ‘stuck’ or falling into hopelessness and/or cynicism…
Cynicism is an unfortunate and seductive retreat, once the rejections pile up past a certain point. Especially if you’re piling up rejections on the one hand, and reading what you consider to be crap from the pros on the other. I just finished the majority of an issue of a certain (intentionally name omitted) market, and I had to admit that I too thought the bulk of what was in it was sub-standard. Plot holes, lack of plot, confusing or contradictory character motivation, stories lacking sufficient endings, and so forth.
It would be nice if the pro-SFWA-rate markets got it right all the time, but as in television and movies, not all stories suit all tastes, and even the major networks and movie companies churn out a significant number of duds, for all kinds of reasons which aren’t really worth worrying about.
I don’t know that I have a magic bullet for cynicism and/or being marooned at a certain sub-professional level, other than to cite my own experience. There have been several times in the last 17 years when I’ve wanted to just throw up my hands and conclude it was a fruitless and awful waste of time, but I could never quite do it. What I did do — with spousal encouragement and a little fire-under-the-butt talk — was look for ways to get outside my comfort zone.
For instance, switching viewpoint, from 3rd person to 1st person. I’d noticed that lots of short work was being written in 1st person, and while this “voice” was awesomely awkward for me at first — because I was so used to reading novels which are very often 3rd person — I made myself to do it, and after a try or three I felt almost liberated because writing 1st person allowed me to bring an immediacy to the story and the character that I’d never been able to effect before.
I also noticed that lots of stuff being published really did hurl a reader directly into the middle of the story. Much of my inventory (aka: “The Practice Papers”) spends a great deal of time on set-up and explanation and world-building. So since 2008 I’ve made a concerted effort to chop the fronts off of my stories, pick and choose the salient data to layer into the later text, and search for the point at which the critical change takes place — because the change is also always where the story starts.
As with switching viewpoint, it was awkward and I still don’t think I am thoroughly comfortable with how abrupt my story beginnings have become, but I do think the proof is in the pudding: I’ve managed to lure at least a few editorial eyes to their doom (rubs handlebar mustache while observing publishing contracts lashed to the railroad tracks) and I am both nervous and anticipatory, regarding reader reception. There is every reason to suspect my stories, too, will come across as the “crap” so many see in print these days.
Back to my point, about going outside the comfort zone: I think a lot of us also get into the habit of writing “familiar” stories that are always about a given thing: space stations, robots, monsters, urban elves, urban anything, etc. If you’re “stuck” and feeling worn down and tired by it all, I propose that you’re quickest fix would be to go in a totally new direction and tackle a totally new aspect of your chosen genre. Adore outer-space adventure of the far future? Try writing a couple of near-future, Earth-based stories. Or vice versa. Prefer fantasy alone? Try some SF. Even if it’s just to get out of the “room” you’ve been in too long, go outside and get some fresh “air” and get some different exercise.
And definitely don’t limit yourself to a tiny number of markets. SF and F has dozens of available markets, and a story that skips across the pond five or ten times, might score on the next try. You won’t know if you trunk the story in discouragement.
My rule for trunking is not whether or not a story has been rejected, but whether or not I’ve progressed far enough away from it in ability and time to see it with more objective eyes, and I can tell what it’s problems are. I can think of one of my stories right now that I wrote in 2008 and liked very much, but it has not sold and when I re-read it, I realize it’s basically a first chapter to a novel, not a complete short work, so I may expand it into a novella or I might mine it for the core character, and try an entirely new story from scratch.
Finally, extra sets of critical eyes can always been useful. Not everyone is equally capable of giving good feedback, but it can be useful to identify a body or bodies whose opinions do seem valuable, and have them look at your stuff once in awhile. Better still, when reading any fiction, pro or aspirant level, if you find yourself not liking something, identify why you don’t like it, and remember this next time you write something on your own. You might be surprised to discover that what drives you nuts in others’ stories, you are unconsciously doing in your own.
These are just some of the ideas and things which have worked for me, and helped jump me from unpublished aspirant to baby SF author. I have a whole new mountain range of challenges ahead of me, and the work seems to have begun anew all over again — yikes! — but I don’t think anyone is doomed to stay “stuck” forever, unless they simply refuse to go outside their comfort zone.
On the sticky topic of luck…
I think it’s absolutely true that you can’t get lucky if you don’t give yourself lots of opportunities. Ergo, if you only write a handful of short pieces every year and only mail them to a handful of markets, your opportunities are not nearly as numerous as they would be if you wrote numerous stories and mailed to numerous markets.
Put more simply, you can’t win if you don’t enter. And in the case of writing, enter early and enter often!
Right now I count over 20 markets on my tracking spreadsheet which all pay pro-SFWA-rate or better. Not all of them are explicitly SF or F in focus, but I send to those anyway if the story in question seems like it might have half a chance. You never know.
Writers of the Future — check out the awesome new web site! — should, of course, be the #1 market on any aspirant’s list. If you haven’t been picked up for a WOTF volume yet, and if you’ve not yet had three stories published in pro-SFWA-rate markets yet, then you should — without exception — be submitting to WOTF every quarter. No market has bigger “bang” for the aspirant buck, and no playing field is more level for aspirant works competing for recognition.
But WOTF is only the first. There are [Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction], plus Realms of Fantasy, Dreams of Decadence, Interzone, and numerous on-line markets such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and TOR.COM, as well as Clarkesworld and Intergalactic Medicine Show. Before you trunk a story, you should trot it down a list such as this, trying all the possible outlets. Even a story rejected many times, might find a home on the next try.
On why I only submit to pro-SFWA-rate markets…
Once I passed 15 years with no pro sales, and only one or two token publications, I discovered that I had lived so long with rejection and disappointment, it didn’t bother me to restrict my market list. I decided — for me — that it was okay to leave most of the semi-pro markets off because I had concluded that the only kind of publication I really desired at that point, was bona fide professional-level publication. Preferably, print. In a venue of repute, with long-standing in the industry. Because this was the type and kind of publication I had esteemed to for the better part two decades.
Besides, most of the stuff in the trunk, belongs in the trunk. This defies one of Heinlein’s rules, but really, stories I wrote in 1994 and 1995 are not even close to publishable and could not be revived; not without a wholesale burn-down and re-draft using only core concept(s) or character(s). Something I do do from time to time, as projects and interest permit. Ergo, creating entirely new stories from the ashes of the old stories. So in a sense, nothing stays in the trunk forever. Each trunk story has “phoenix” potential.
In the end, I am sooooooooooooo very happy I didn’t set my sights low. Winning Writers of the Future — and landing a sale to one of the Big Three digests within 60 days — was a terrific and very rewarding couple of events which made the long wait worth it.