Monday, April 10, 2017

Let's Get Real

Preparing to mentor someone in #Pitchwars has got me thinking about what I have to offer that isn't already out there enough in the writing ether. Here's where I landed:

The publishing industry is amazing, and also brutal.

If you want to be an author (i.e. someone who shares their books with the world, traditionally, or independently) then you need to understand what you can control, and what you can't. Because this industry will take a lot out of your hands. And it's easy to get confused and start blaming yourself for things you shouldn't--but also to not take responsibility for things you should.

I'm going to do my best to give you a realistic picture of how this industry works. And challenge you to own your actions and see yourself through an objective filter. Because if you're willing to do that, you will win at this game.

Are you ready to hear how? (This is where you strap in)

I'm friends with a lot of writers. Some self-published, some midlist published like me, some extremely successful, and some just starting out--agented, or aspiring to be.

After eight years immersed in this industry, I'm beginning to be able to pick who's going to win at this game, and who won't. Because giving yourself the best chance to be a winner in publishing is in your control, even if the ultimate finish-line isn't. Are you ready? Here goes:

What You Can Control (But Might Not Want To)
(As taught to me by people much more experienced and successful than I)

1. You can understand the craft of fiction.

It might seem daunting, or like a waste of time that could be better spent creating. Here's the truth: It isn't.

This is the largest obstacle I see in aspiring authors. I can't count the number of times I've heard people say they don't have time to read instructional books. Or they don't want their writing to become "formulaic". Or they start to read something, find it inspiring, jump back into their manuscript and don't ever go back to the other nuggets of instruction that are available in the book they started.

And the problems that someone else has already given the answers for, or the weaknesses in their writing that someone else has already identified in a craft book, continue in their writing. And they continue to get rejections. And they become despondent.

Take control. Read books from masters about how to become a better writer. Read blogs from authors about the things they see in new writers. Believe it. They aren't sharing that with you for kicks. They're trying to help. But only you can control if you're willing to invest time in your own work.

2. You can allow your work to be criticized so you can improve on it.

This is the second biggest problem I see in aspiring authors. "I can't let other people read it. It's my baby." or "I couldn't take it if someone didn't like it."

I get it. They're afraid someone will call it ugly, or useless, or mimicry. They're hurt by that thought, so they retreat. But here's the time to pull up your big girl/boy pants:

If you ever plan to share your writing--for free, independently, or via traditional routes--someone else is going to read it and inevitably, someone will tell you what's wrong with it. Whether those flaws are massive, or just nit-picky, subjective stuff, is in your control.

If you put out for free, someone will tell you why they don't like it.

If you publish independently or otherwise, people will give you bad reviews. (No one is free of that particular burden, no matter how successful).

If you try to get an agent and/or a publishing deal, it will be critiqued, edited, and changes requested. Probably demanded.

In short: In publishing, a thick skin is a must. And the only way to develop a thick skin, is to allow the criticism to help you do better next time. Don't wallow in rejection, learn from it.

In this industry, criticism and rejection are unavoidable, inevitable truths. So here's what you can control: You can control who gets first pass at identifying problems (because anyone who just says "I love it" isn't helping anything but your ego--none of us are perfect, and none of our books are, either). You can control how much you're willing to revise and work at refining your writing, and your story, to make it better.

Because the better it is, the more likely you are to reach whatever goal you have, be it great comments on your post, high average reviews and sales in self-publishing, or garnering an agent and a contract. Are you willing to take on the initial rejection and criticism, in order to receive less of it later? It's in your control to do so.

3. You can treat writing like a profession, even if you aren't earning through it yet.

Here's what's going to happen if you publish, independently or traditionally: People will have expectations, and you'll be working hard to meet them. And sometimes that will mean working when you don't feel inspired. Or working on a story that's started to die for you because you've read it so many times. 

An amateur gives up, procrastinates, denies (or worse, deceives) those who are demanding more, and makes excuses for why it's not their fault.

A professional works to deadlines (even if they're ones they've set themselves), takes input and turns it into momentum to improve, and is reliable. When they say something's going to arrive, it arrives. When they say they're delivering a sequel, or a proposal for the next book, or the edits on the current one, they do. It's that simple.

Are you making commitments and keeping them, even when it's hard? That's in your control. And if the day comes that you are successful in reaching a goal, the ability to work under pressure, or when the muse is absent, will serve you very, very well.

4. You can be willing to sacrifice to reach your goals.

Another refrain from aspiring authors: "I just don't have time."

In some lives, this is genuinely true. They're working full time, helping kids with homework, and dealing with family matters. If that's the case, forgive yourself, work when you can, and know that this is a season. The day will come when you have structured time to write, and you're so good at being reliable, that's when you'll see the rewards for it.

But many, many others don't.

"I don't have time!" yet they're binge-watching their favorite shows on Netflix.

"I don't have time!" yet they're posting visual diaries on Twitter, and talking for two hours with a friend over coffee about the book they're "writing". Sort of.

"I don't have time!" yet they're in a head-to-head battle with some guy in Norway over top slot on their favorite Playstation game.

Here's the thing: You can choose what you prioritize. If you want to prioritize other things, that's fine. But don't tell yourself (or me) that you don't have time. You do. It's what you're choosing to do with the time that's the problem.

Writers write. Are you? If not, you aren't a writer. But you can be. If you choose it.

5. You can be disciplined and structured about your efforts.

Here's words you'll hear a lot if you get involved in writing communities online:

"I'm a committed pantser."

"I can't outline, it kills the journey of discovery."

"I don't know how to fix this plot problem."

"If I plan a scene ahead, I get bored."

Something that's true: Everyone has a different process that works for them.

Something else that's true: Professional, successful writers have to plan ahead and know where they're going. They have to know what they're releasing before it's in the world. They have responsibilities to their agents/publishers to propose a book (which includes a full plot summary). They have to be able to commit to deadlines (which means understanding how long it will take them to write something, and pushing themselves to reach that goal even when it's hard).

Get serious. If you want to do this for a living, have an agent, get submitted to publishers, you have to be willing to plan.

Here's the cool part: When you start planning, organizing, and structuring your writing time, ultimately you'll write faster, better material, earlier in the process. And with each subsequent book, the material you produce becomes a better product. So you have more success, and get to choose even more things to plan for.

If you aren't willing to analyze, plan, or commit, your writing will get stuck and your career will stall. Your readers will get bored, or not show up at all.

6. You can function as a professional (even before you get paid).

No one says better how the jump to professionalism is achieved, than the master, Neil Gaiman (if you don't have time to listen to all of it, go to 14:10)

Which two are you? Own those. Tell people about them. Be those things. And watch yourself begin to succeed.

7. You can keep going, even when it gets hard.

Okay, serious talk: Some of us are dealing with mental or physical health issues, painful seasons in life, and other obstacles we can't control that will affect our ability to push on. That's okay. That's life. And writing is only good for your life when everything else is working. So take the time you need to be healthy, fit, and ready.

But once you're there, once you're in a place where you know what you want, and you're equipped to pursue it, know this: There are going to be really, really hard days (sometimes even weeks or months). Days when you're convinced your material is crap. Days when you receive just one more rejection from an agent, or just one more note from a publisher that says "close, but no cigar".

Those things all hurt. They hurt all of us. But there's two possible responses: The first is, "I hate this, I'm not doing it anymore." The second is "I need to take a breath, then I'm going to try again."

Guess which one will find you success? Hint: This industry will gut you if you don't have the wherewithal to lick your wounds, then keep going. The only part of this process that you can control is the willingness to take yet another shot.

Thomas Edison said it best. It took him around 1,000 tries to invent the light bulb, and after he did, a journalist asked him "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" His response? "I didn't fail 1,000 times, the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

Your book hopefully won't take 1,000 steps. But if it does, are you willing to keep pushing yourself on after the first one-hundred, two-hundred, even nine-hundred paces? Because that's the part of the process that you can control.

Authors are writers who didn't give up. Just because you haven't achieved something right now, doesn't mean you never will.

I promise.

So, here's my suggestion in a nutshell: Take control of what you can.

Then, in a few days, come back here and learn to forgive yourself for the things you can't . . .

Your Turn: Any questions? Ways I can help? Talk to me on Twitter at @AimeeLSalter or comment here.


  1. I love everything about this post. And thanks for sharing Neil Gaiman's speech! So inspirational!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it.

      As for Mr. Gaiman, I have yet to come across a speech from a creative that gives better, more practical advice on how to handle that kind of career. He's a master (of humor, as well as, you know, being awesome).