You might not know this, but I was supposed to be rich and famous by now. Imagine my shock and horror to discover it isn’t so. What does it mean when dreams fail to match reality? Is it a sign to throw in the towel, or time to ratchet things up?
Here are the deal breakers: when did you start trying? This is not about dreaming, mind you…When did you finish your first short story? When did you start submitting it? How many times has it been submitted? Rejected? Revised? Resubmitted? Have you done your homework and sent it to appropriate venues? Have you made sure the technical bugs are ironed out – like grammar, structure, dialogue and characterization flaws? Do you read books about writing and revision? Have you taken a class or a workshop? Suffered through a critique of your work? Do you know how to listen to criticism? Are you willing to make necessary sacrifices?
The scary news is that writing is work. The fun part is plotting it out, discovering characters and even taking them out to play with now and then, savoring the uncanny lifelikeness of their beings. The super part is being in The Zone, when you lose whole days to the creative process, when the words flow like honey…and bards sing your triumphs into legend. That is the fun stuff. And after the story is out and on the page, The Work starts.
First, walk away. Step away from the manuscript and do not look back. Bask in the afterglow, have a cigarette, eat junk food. But do not look at it again. Put it away for at least two weeks. You need distance if your own talents and deficiencies are going to stand out.
Second, read a book about editing. A good one is by the Gotham Writer’s Workshop titled Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide for New York’s Acclaimed Writing School (New York, Bloomsbury, c 2003, $14.95.) Listen to what real editors think is important and what turns them off so intently that they won’t go one paragraph further. Remember that it is not their job to “correct” your errors – merely to point them out; if editors changed your manuscript, the story would be a collaborative work and you would have to share a by-line. So stop assuming that you are the idea-factory and they are the slave labor; you have that one backward. Meanwhile, you need to learn to critique your own work using as much of their criteria as you can muster.
Third, look deeply into the mirror and the dark recesses of your soul. How bad are you at grammar? Look, some of the best story-tellers have trouble writing it down. There is no shame in it if you admit it and take measures to fix it. If you are just not the grammar-guru, find one. There are many English majors at your local college that would proof-read your work for a song; there are professionals languishing in your community, and those that charge Bigger Bucks online. If your grammar is mortally wounded, that money is well-spent…plan it AFTER what you think is a “last” revision, just before submission.
Fourth, now that you’ve forgotten the details of your own story pick up the manuscript again and seclude yourself in a quiet place. Pretend you are about to read it for the first time, because you are. Don’t be surprised when it is not the story you proudly filed away and all manner of errors pop out. It may even seem like elves have snuck into your secret stash and made drastic, nasty changes. Do not be alarmed: this is good. You need this sense of revulsion for the next stage.
Fifth, it’s time to revise. COPY your original to a blank word document. Retitle your first manuscript “First Draft”…because, alas, it is…the first of many. Keep it shiny and pristine for Posterity’s sake. Now using the information the books and any proofreading have put in your head, start correcting what is wrong. You could start by just inserting comments (on MS Word, go to the Review tab, put your cursor on the relevant line or highlight the word or phrase with a mouse select and left-click, then click on New Comment and fire away). Or use Track Changes (also under the Review Tab) and everything you do or change will be noted. Or you can just do the actual change for the good of humankind. I recommend keeping each changed version, just in case you discover you went too far and have lost the original storyline. For those really great new but need-to-reject characters or paragraphs or dialogue or phrases…Cut and paste to a Loose Dialogue or Unassigned Character file for later development or use. If you love it then save it – just not necessarily in that story. When you are done, repeat steps One through Five.
Sixth, format the beast. This may need to be done numerous times, as many venues have differing criteria and differing publishing guidelines. Find those. If you don’t use them, it communicates sloppiness at the least, and arrogance at the most. Neither will get rewarded in traditional publishing. You may wind up with several versions of formatting…and these versions may be worth keeping the more submissions you anticipate making, and because the more you make formatting changes, the more “confused” the html gets, and the next thing you know the page is formatting itself without your permission.
Seventh, research your options. Writer’s Market is a good place to start, but even it cannot keep up with the horrible carnage happening daily in publishing. Look for magazines in your bookstore and supermarkets, try googling everything you can think of – from titles to topics…hunt, hunt, hunt. Poet’s & Writer’s Magazine (http://www.pw.org/magazine) does a great job of providing markets for contests and publishing opportunities, with at least one great issue devoted to markets annually. It is worth the issue or the subscription price and conducts itself like a professional journal.
Eighth, get it out there. Start submitting and mind the guidelines.
Ninth, keep submitting and consider more revision. Pay special attention if an actual, real-life editor makes comments on your work…Do not take such extravagances lightly. Most rejections are wordless. Real comments scrawled on your manuscript means real talent is suspected in you. Now fix it and prove it.
Tenth, start over. Start your next project and repeat steps One through Nine.
So there you are: my secret is out. I have not successfully completed all of the steps…Some I skipped, some I neglected. Some I put off for forty-some-odd years. Life, it seems, tends to get in the way of dreams. But dreams are meant to be acted upon: they are nouns crying out to be modified by adjectives with active verbs preceding them.
Admittedly, I am horrified at my own behavior toward the Muse. I owe her an apology that has me weighing the merits of human sacrifice in absolution. But in the end the fault is mine, and the responsibility is mine. It is unfortunate that work in the Real World is required and more so that employers believe hiring you means hiring a daydreamer at best and someone just about to jump ship for a lucrative movie and merchandising deal at worst…
But neither cliché is true; we writers tend to have phenomenal focus, tenacious drive, and detail-oriented personalities that make shoe-shopping on the company dime an anathema as deadly to our work ethic as kryptonite. We are creative and resourceful; we love our hobbies and have monsters and movie posters decorating our cubicles. We know how to budget our time, we know how to take criticism as the professional suggestion it is meant to be. We dream. We dream big. But we are also there on Monday, because at home, stashed in a closet, a manuscript is ready for revision…Our journey to fame and fortune will be long if it materializes at all; there are a lot of bills between here and there.
We also have one of the most difficult professions to break into in the world, let alone to make a living off of. We need our Outside Lives to prevent nakedness and starvation, to buy reams of paper and ink, to upgrade our computers and learn word processing programs, graphics and design packages, marketing and public relations because nobody really teaches us that. Yes, the Muse awaits the sound of the time card clocking out. She is tapping her foot, and looking cross because I am late and she had plans. She wants that manuscript printed on Nice Expensive Paper and placed in a perfectly ironed-flat envelope. And we will need postage.I am ready to ratchet things up. I am ready to embrace the writer within. I am also ready to do what’s necessary to keep the Muse in printer supplies. This is not a spare time issue: this is about leading the double-life that is necessary to be a writer today. But never again will I deny who I am or what I do in that spare time; I will never again wait to be rich and famous – partly because at 51, there just isn’t that kind of time, but also because I have learned my lesson…
Writing is the passion that makes everything else ok. It is part of my mojo, my secret identity that has an accompanying really cool stretchy-yet-slimming spandex suit of glow-in-the-dark colors and a matching cape. There is a world out there, populated by monsters; it is my world. And I have work to do. It’s affirmation time.